Cause of Death Revealed for Kennedy Granddaughter Who Had Vanished in Canoe Accident with Son

Adam Carlson
Cause of Death Revealed for Kennedy Granddaughter Who Had Vanished in Canoe Accident with Son

Robert F. Kennedy’s granddaughter Maeve McKean accidentally drowned in the turbulent and chilly water of the Chesapeake Bay after a canoeing accident with her 8-year-old son, officials said Wednesday.

McKean’s cause and manner of death were confirmed by a spokesman for the state’s chief medical examiner, which is handling the case.

Her body was recovered Monday afternoon — four days after the accident — about 2.5 miles from where she and son Gideon had first set out in a canoe. Her husband said they had hoped only to retrieve a ball that had fallen into the water during their game outside the bay-front home where they were staying. But they were beset by high wind and waves and pulled further and further away.

She and husband David McKean and their three young children had gone to her mother’s empty waterfront property on the bay, in Shady Side, Maryland, in order to give them some space while isolating during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Facebook From left: Maeve McKean and son Gideon

“Gideon and Maeve were playing kickball by the small, shallow cove behind the house, and one of them kicked the ball into the water,” David wrote in a Facebook post on Friday as authorities shifted their search from rescue to recovery of the remains.

“The cove is protected, with much calmer wind and water than in the greater Chesapeake,” David wrote then. “They got into a canoe, intending simply to retrieve the ball, and somehow got pushed by wind or tide into the open bay.”

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Mother and son were seen from a pier about 30 minutes later and the concerned onlooker called 911. They weren’t wearing life jackets.

“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 told PEOPLE.

First responders on the scene minutes later indeed saw Maeve and Gideon and their canoe before they went out of sight, Davies said. But they were not seen again.

Facebook From left: Maeve McKean and son Gideon

“The main thing was the wind being sustained at 15-to-20 mph with gusts up to 35 mph,” Ray Martin, a senior meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Baltimore office, told PEOPLE of conditions that day.

Martin says that in the early spring, the water temperature in the bay is typically colder than the air, which was in the upper 50s on Thursday.

“It was a rough day,” Capt. Davies said, with “two- to three-foot waves” and white caps.

“The bay is an odd combination between a lake and a part of the ocean,” Martin, the meteorologist, explained. “It’s pretty closed off from the ocean, so you don’t see ocean waves or anything like that, but it’s certainly much larger than your average lake. It’s more like a Great Lake, which can have ocean-like conditions sometimes. You can go from days that are very calm to days that are quite stormy. You can get a lot of variation.”

Maeve and Gideon’s capsized canoe and paddle were recovered Thursday night.

The search for Gideon’s body continues.

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Mike Pont/Getty David and Maeve McKean and their family in December

A 40-year-old lawyer with a speciality in human rights and public health, Maeve was the executive director of the Georgetown University Global Health Initiative. Her mother, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was Maryland’s lieutenant governor from 1995 to 2003; dad David Townsend is an attorney and professor.

“Maeve was an incredibly joyful and upbeat, strong and positive woman and Gideon was the same: vigorous, stronger mentally and physically than his age would suggest — and full of life,” Tim Shriver, former President John F. Kennedy’s nephew and Maeve’s cousin, told PEOPLE.

“She was smart as a whip, tough as nails and kind as a human being can be,” Shriver said of Maeve. “The combination was mesmerizing. She could charm you with her generosity of spirit, amaze you with her intellect and then you just wanted to stand back with the force of her will.”

Gideon, his dad wrote on Facebook on Friday was “impossible to sum up. I am heartbroken to even have to try.”

Athletic, big-hearted and bookish, he wouldn’t even “sing children’s songs if they contained a hint of animals or people being treated cruelly.”

“I used to marvel at him as a toddler and worry that he was too perfect to exist in this world,” David wrote. “It seems to me now that he was.”