Neilia Biden was dead, killed in a car accident along with the couple's year-old daughter, Naomi. Biden's two sons were critically injured.
In a speech this past May to families of U.S. soldiers killed in action, Biden recalled how the tragedy plunged him into anger and depression.
"For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide," he told the group.
"I remember being in the Rotunda, walking through to get to the plane to get home to get to identify (the bodies) ... I remember looking up and saying 'God ... you can't be good. How can you be good?'"
Biden's sister moved in to care for her nephews. Biden told family and friends he would take a pass on the Senate.
But Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and others pleaded with Biden to give the job six months, with colleagues urging him to immerse himself in his work. Kaufman recalls days when Biden seemed fine, and then the next "it'd be every bit as bad as the first day. He'd just be coming in like he'd been blown away."
Biden found a comfort zone in Washington by maintaining one outside it, taking Amtrak home to Wilmington each night to be with his sons. In the Senate, he became a student and observer of storied figures like Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey.
"He's a very hierarchical guy," Kaufman said. "His basic approach was I'm junior, they're senior. ... He was very comfortable in giving deference to the senior members."
In 1975, a friend passed him the phone number of Jill Jacobs, an aspiring teacher eight years his junior, and the two began dating. But Biden proposed six times before she agreed. They married in 1977.
By 1980, Biden had built a reputation in the Senate as a comer, with some people encouraging him to think about a future run for the presidency, though he was not yet 40. In his book, Biden writes that he resisted because he could not yet answer a question posed by Marttila about why he wanted to be president.
With Ronald Reagan nearing the end of his second term, Biden decided the time might be right. He traveled the country as a candidate in 1987, still little known outside Delaware. That changed after Reagan nominated conservative judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court to replace retiring moderate Lewis Powell. The nation's attention turned to the Senate Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Biden.
By late summer, Biden was dividing his time and energy between stumping for the presidency and preparing to lead hearings on Bork, whose nomination drew heated opposition from liberals. The two sides of Biden's political life collided as the hearings began, with newspaper reports that, during an Iowa debate, he had plagiarized a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock. Then came allegations that, while at Syracuse, Biden had inserted large parts of a law review article, without attribution, into a paper he wrote.
Biden admitted making mistakes, but insisted it would have no effect on his candidacy. Days later, he withdrew from the race and called Judiciary Committee colleagues into a private meeting.
"He was devastated. It was a hammer blow to the gut," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., who was in the room. "He called us in and he said 'I'm very hurt, I'm embarrassed and I think if I've brought any embarrassment on any of you ... I'd be glad to step down. It was very dramatic. There wasn't anything contrived. It was just silence."
The silence was broken by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., followed by other senators, noting that at one time each of them had made mistakes. They urged Biden to stay on. He did, presiding over hearings that led to Bork's rejection, but were praised for maintaining a respect that allowed all sides to air their views.
Biden has said he viewed the Bork hearings as the beginning of a vindication. But his record four years later in presiding over the contentious nomination of Clarence Thomas — hearings charged with accusations of racism and sexism — remains the target of fierce criticism. While Biden writes about the Bork hearings at length in his book, he never mentions the Thomas confirmation.