Swept from Shore, Stranded in Rough Weather — Then Gone: How the Kennedy Canoe Tragedy Unfolded
Mother and son set out hoping only to retrieve a lost ball and quickly return to dry land, but within the hour they vanished
Maeve McKean and her 8-year-old son, Gideon, had already been struggling in the choppy expanse of the Chesapeake Bay for some 30 minutes last Thursday when — for a few moments, at least — it seemed they might be saved.
By then, Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter and great-grandson were miles out into the Chesapeake in their canoe, pulled inexorably by the wind and waves from the shore of McKean’s mother’s empty waterfront home in Shady Side, Maryland, where her family had gone to isolate amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier that afternoon, she and Gideon had been playing kickball behind the house, which borders a “small, shallow cove” on the bay, according to her husband, David McKean.
The ball went into the water and Maeve and her son went into their canoe, hoping to quickly retrieve it and return to dry land. It was a clear day and cool, only partly cloudy.
“The cove is protected, with much calmer wind and water than in the greater Chesapeake,” David wrote on Facebook last week, recounting what happened next.
“Somehow,” he wrote, his wife of 11 years and their eldest son “got pushed by wind or tide into the open bay.”
Family friend Alan Fleischmann says that only Maeve and her husband and their three young children were staying at the home. “She was extremely strict about practicing social distancing, and she brought her kids to have a little time there out in the fresh air,” he says. Police tell PEOPLE that someone did see them get into their canoe but declined to be more specific, citing the investigation.
About 30 minutes later, a man on the pier at Columbia Beach in Shady Side, just south of where Maeve and Gideon first set out, spotted them and grew concerned. Their boat was very small, and neither was wearing a life jacket.
He called 911. It was 4:30 p.m.
“It looked like they were being pushed out into the water and were having a hard time returning to shore,” Anne Arundel County Fire Department Capt. Russ Davies tells PEOPLE.
The water was frigid that day and the winds whipped at 15-to-20 mph, with gusts of more than 30 mph and whitecapped waves of two-to-three feet.
Although many of the waterways in the Chesapeake are suitable enough for beginning boaters, there are “sections of the rivers can funnel wind and develop nasty, choppy seas,” according to the National Park Service.
“The bay is an odd combination between a lake and a part of the ocean,” Ray Martin, a senior meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Baltimore office, explains.
“It’s pretty closed off from the ocean, so you don’t see ocean waves. … It’s more like a Great Lake, which can have ocean-like conditions sometimes,” Martin tells PEOPLE. “You can go from days that are very calm to days that are quite stormy.”
Within five or six minutes of the 911 call, Capt. Davies says, first responders were on the scene.
“[They] had eyes on the canoe, but it was far off from the pier,” he says. Maeve and Gideon were seen “several miles from the pier drifting south in the Chesapeake Bay,” the county fire department said last week.
Firefighters “watched it when it went out of sight,” Davies says. “At that time, both people were still on it.”
They were not seen alive again.
Authorities quickly began searching until darkness made it too difficult to continue, but they found only the capsized canoe and paddle near Rockhold Creek west of the bay and southwest of Maeve’s mom’s house.
Late the following day, a heartsick David McKean shared on Facebook what had become unavoidable.
“The chances they have survived are impossibly small,” he wrote, adding, “The search for their recovery will continue, and I hope that that will be successful.”
He encouraged loved ones to share their own stories and photos of Maeve and Gideon — to keep flickering the flame of their memories. “I have already thought many times over today that I need to remember to tell Maeve about something that’s happening,” he wrote. “I am terrified by the idea that this will fade over time.”
The county fire department, joined by the Coast Guard and other local and state agencies, resumed the search on Friday and continued it the next day and the next, by sea and by sky and by sonar.
“Every person is different, every situation is different. But we are working tirelessly,” Lauren Moses, a spokeswoman with Maryland Natural Resources police, told PEOPLE on Monday. “We’ve been out for a few days trying to locate and make a recovery to bring closure to the family.”
Hours later, divers found Maeve’s body in 25 feet of water and approximately 2.5 miles south of her mom’s house. Two days later, an underwater team found Gideon dead in 25 feet of water as well. He was less than half a mile from his mom’s body and 2.3 miles south from the Shady Side home. Neither was close to shore.
In a statement on Wednesday, Maeve’s mother, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, thanked the officials who had assisted in the recovery efforts.
“They have helped us bring some closure to this terrible loss,” she said, “and our family will always be grateful for their tireless work.”
In his own statement, Maeve’s father, professor David Lee Townsend, said that “for 40 years we were graced by Maeve’s high heart and wisdom that caught fire at need and made her beautiful and fierce, sudden and laughing.”
A human rights lawyer and former Peace Corps volunteer, she had most recently served as executive director of the Georgetown University Global Health Initiative. Son Gideon, his dad wrote, had grown a heart so big he wouldn’t even “sing children’s songs if they contained a hint of animals or people being treated cruelly.”
Cousin Tim Shriver, a nephew of former President John F. Kennedy, told PEOPLE this week that because of the isolation required during the coronavirus pandemic there was no planned in-person memorial. In lieu of that, the family has gathered remotely by video to mourn and to pray.
“Everything is different,” Shriver said. “I think in some ways people are connecting as a group more, but we don’t get to hug, we don’t get to hold each others’ shoulders, we don’t get to eat together, we don’t get to go for a walk together, we don’t get to hold hands, we don’t get to cry on a shoulder. These most human of connections — which are so powerful and valuable — are taken from us. So we have to try in other ways to let the spirit of all those actions, those physical moments, come through in some other way.”
After decades of fame and fortune and woe, “I think we have the benefit of as strong a family as there could possibly be,” Shriver said.
“I wish we could say it was enough,” he said. “It’s enough to give us strength, but it’s not enough to end the pain.”
• Reporting by WENDY GROSSMAN KANTOR, LIZ McNEIL and SEAN NEUMANN