"It's not like it's the first thing locals think about, but at the same time it's always there," says retired police Sgt. Tom Smith

By Adam Carlson and Liz McNeil
July 22, 2021 10:04 AM
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Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident
Sen. Ted Kennedy (center) leaves the courthouse after pleading guilty in the deadly Chappaquiddick crash
| Credit: Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty

All these years later, much is still the same at the site where Sen. Ted Kennedy careened off Dyke Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island 52 years ago, in a watery crash from which he saved himself but where passenger Mary Jo Kopechne was left behind to die.

The bridge itself is different. Short, with a small hump, it was rebuilt in the years since the accident after falling into disrepair and updated to modern safety standards. Now it has sturdy guardrails lining each side — and what happened to Kennedy and Kopechne would be difficult to imagine again.

But the events surrounding July 18, 1969, have never been forgotten.

"It's not like it's the first thing locals think about, but at the same time it's always there," says Edgartown, Massachusetts, retired police Sgt. Tom Smith, who as a boy was staying in his family's cottage just two doors down from the bridge on the night of the crash.

"It changed the island instantly," says Smith, 56.

"Personally," he says, "I hope that visitors and locals always remember Mary Jo."

Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick Incident
The site of Sen. Ted Kennedy's 1969 crash on Chappaquiddick Island that killed Mary Jo Kopechne
| Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty

Occasionally, someone erects a plaque on the bridge in Kopechne's name or "will leave remembrances," he says: "Last year there was something put up and then ... it came down."

"When we have people visiting the island, that's the first thing they ask about — 'Where's the bridge?' " a local resident told TV station GBH in 2019.

A ferry captain told the station then that the bridge was a tourist attraction, of sorts: "It's definitely generational. It's an older crowd that usually comes down and asks if this is where the bridge was."

But now that so much time has passed, the average commuter has other things on their mind, Smith says.

"As far as the way the locals view it, I think the people that utilize that area and that property are fishermen and people who like to enjoy the property that's beyond [the bridge]," he says.

For his part, Smith still has questions about the deadly crash and its controversial aftermath, in which Kennedy waited 10 hours before notifying police. (He ultimately pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident.)

Listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on the Chappaquiddick tragedy.

Kopechne's family told PEOPLE this year they were unwavering in still wanting answers to the lingering questions around her death, including why she was in Kennedy's car, what happened in the hours before she died and why another woman's purse was found there the next morning.

"I'm still, 52 years later, just not satisfied with any of the kind of description about what actually happened," Smith says, "As we know, all the key players are now gone and 52 years later, it's still so frustrating to not know what happened that night."

For more on the Chappaquiddick scandal, listen to PEOPLE's podcast Cover-Up on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available. And to continue the discussion, join our Facebook group to share your thoughts and theories or reach us directly at coverup@people.com.