PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

 Sunday, April 9, 1989 

JOINED IN TRAGEDY, FLIGHT 103 FAMILIES WANT ANSWERS

  • More about the Maslowski's and the 10 year commemoration of Pan Am 103
  • TEXT: When are you going to forget about this Pan Am stuff?

     
    Norma Maslowski had just left her dentist and was hurrying back to her
    dress shop on Haddonfield's main street when she was confronted again by The Question. This time it came from a doctor she had known for many years.
     

    "You have to stop thinking about it," he said briskly, as if he were prescribing a dose of aspirin for a cold. "Get on with your life."

     The words were painful, but no surprise. During that awful week last
    December, after a terrorist's bomb shattered the Pan Am jet carrying her daughter Diane home for Christmas, Maslowski's Haddonfield home had been filled from morning until night with sympathetic friends and family. But as the months passed, Norma Maslowski found that some people expected her to pack away her grief with Diane's possessions.

     Norma Maslowski has no intention of forgetting what happened to her daughter. Diane, a financial whiz who, at 30, was making $600,000 a year as a top executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., died because terrorists were able to slip a book-sized slab of plastic explosive past Pan Am's security and into the baggage hold of Flight 103.

     When Maslowski thinks about Diane's grisly death, she does not blame only the anonymous bombers. She also holds the airline and the U.S. government accountable. Her feelings are expressed on a small button pinned to her blouse. It reads: "Pan Am 103: The Truth Must Be Known."

     

    *
    In the beginning, Norma and Stan Maslowski thought they were alone in their intense desire to learn more about the bombing of Flight 103. But less than five miles away, in Cherry Hill, Eileen and Robert Monetti were haunted by many of the same questions.

     Like the Maslowskis, the Monettis lost their eldest child when Flight 103 exploded Dec. 21 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Monettis' son Richard, 20, a Syracuse University student, had just finished a semester of his junior year in London and was on his way to celebrate Christmas with the extended Monetti clan in a rented beach house on the Jersey shore.

     The Maslowskis of Haddonfield and the Monettis of Cherry Hill met for the first time two months after the bombing, when the family of another victim invited them to a meeting in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.

     The gathering brought together about 75 relatives of victims. They arrived like sleepwalkers. Many had pinned photographs of their dead children or spouses to their clothing. Many brought food.

     "Everyone who walked in announced, 'I don't know why I'm here, but I'm here,' " said Robert Monetti.

     Very quickly, the reason became clear; they were all experiencing the same aftershocks of grief.

     "There were about eight of us standing around in a circle, talking," Robert Monetti recalled. "Someone said, 'You know, about eight times a day, I call someone on the telephone and I can't remember why the hell I called.' Then someone else said, 'Yeah, that happens to me, too.' "

     Later, the Maslowskis and Monettis discovered they shared other typical symptoms of grief. Not only were they unusually absent-minded, but the preoccupation with the deaths of their children kept them from sleeping at night and from concentrating during the day.

     "It took me two months to edit and correct the rough draft of a report," said Robert Monetti. "I'd stare at it and nothing would happen."

     "The tears just come," said Stan Maslowski.

     "I haven't read a book since December," said Eileen Monetti. "I can't focus on anything."

     "I have dreams about cleaning out Diane's apartment," said Norma Maslowski. "She's the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about at night." She is haunted by the image of her daughter falling six miles out of the sky.

     

    *
    Before the bombing, their lives had centered on home and career, church and business, the swim club and the PTA.

     The terrorist attack made them look beyond.

     In the days after the bombing, the Maslowskis and the Monettis experienced the same anger and confusion as they tried to make sense of the attack. Rather than try to bury their grief, both families decided to channel their pain into political activism.

     At the meeting in Hasbrouck Heights, the victims' families agreed to form an organization, the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, to offer other families emotional solidarity. And they quickly formed a political action committee to press the government for more information about the bombing.

     The Maslowskis and Monettis - who had little experience with public causes - joined the committee. They now spend much of their free time working together, lobbying for improved airport security and a federal investigation of the bombing. The two families, along with others in the area, have gone as a delegation to see U.S. Sens. Bill Bradley and Frank Lautenberg and U.S. Rep. H. James Saxton.

     Robert Monetti, after taking several weeks off, has returned to his engineering job three days a week. The rest of the time, he said, he scours area libraries for arcane aviation journals, looking for clues on how terrorists succeeded in killing his son.

     "The airport security we have now sucks," he said. "There's going to be another plane bombed, and when the next one comes, I don't want to feel the least bit guilty. . . . It won't be like we felt sorry for ourselves and didn't do anything."

     The Maslowskis and the Monettis helped organize last week's memorial service in Washington to mark the 103d day after the bombing. They also helped devise the strategy for their group's meeting last week with President Bush.

     But many of their original questions remain unanswered, said Eileen Monetti.

     Why didn't the Federal Aviation Administration order extra precautions when it learned that terrorists had access to sophisticated plastic explosives? Why was a tip about a bomb threat against Pan Am written off as a hoax? Why did U.S. embassies in Bonn, Rome, Budapest and Moscow receive bulletins about a threatened terrorist attack two weeks before the Flight 103 bombing? Why were dozens of reservations canceled at the last moment?

     After Rick's funeral, Eileen Monetti went back to her job teaching history in the Gloucester City school system. But she says she has been having trouble with some of the standard course material, especially the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

     The words she had once revered, she said, seem hollow. She has lost more than a son, Monetti said; she has also lost faith in her country. If "all men are created equal," she wondered, why were only select people warned about the threats against Flight 103?

     Their lives have been irrevocably changed by the deaths, in ways big and small.

     Determined to make things as normal as possible, Stan Maslowski, 57, decided to return to work right after New Year's for his company's big sales conference. He flew to Mexico for the meeting, but as soon as he was alone in his hotel room, he said he knew he made a mistake.

     He said he began thinking: "Why am I working when I should be with my family, my wife?" When he called home and found his wife crying, he made up his mind. He decided to quit. In that Mexican hotel room, he said, "my values started to change."

     He now spends his time helping out at his wife's dress shop, Jay-West Imports, working for the victims' group and trying to sort out his daughter's complex estate. In the store, he navigates the crowded racks of taffeta and lace, dyes satin shoes, handles the accounts, takes out the trash and even cleans the toilets.

     The Monettis' daughter Kara, 16, has also become a fixture in the tiny dress shop, where she is working part-time. She is falling behind in her schoolwork, she said, but getting an education in civics through her involvement in the victims' group.

     Her parents go out of their way to express their love. They made an extra round-trip from Washington to Cherry Hill last weekend, while planning the memorial service, to be with Kara when she left with her date for the sophomore cotillion.

     Before the Flight 103 bombing, Maslowski traveled regularly to Washington, to entertain clients. He boasts that he knew every good restaurant in town. He still travels to the nation's capital, but now his turf is the halls of congressional office buildings. On the coffee table in the living room, amid Diane's photo albums, he keeps his new bible: Ralph Nader's "A Citizen's Guide to Lobbying."

     The bombing is never far from Eileen Monetti's mind. Each day, it seems, brings another letter, another phone call, another request for information. A few weeks ago, a small package arrived in the mail from Scotland. It contained some of the clothes Rick brought with him to London, as well as the journal he kept during his stay.

     In the package, Eileen Monetti also found the watch her son was wearing Dec. 21 when the thousands of pieces of Pan Am's Boeing 747 showered down on Lockerbie. Encrusted with mud, the watch was still ticking.

     The incident seemed surreal, like an episode from the Twilight Zone, but it rekindled the anger Monetti felt when she first learned of Rick's death. "I could not believe I was a middle-class housewife from Cherry Hill whose life was changed because of terrorist attack," Monetti said.

     

    *
    The passengers of Pan Am Flight 103 died public deaths, deaths that have been replayed in various forums for months. The public reminders of these deaths is one factor that intensifies the grief of many of the families, says Richard Dershimer, a psychologist who founded the Center for Living with Loss, outside Syracuse, N.Y. He said the families can expect to suffer the preoccupation of intense grief for at least a year, but the pain of loss will never fully disappear.

     Susan Maslowski, 29, just a year younger than Diane, finds that she can hardly turn on the television or pick up a magazine without seeing something related to her sister's death. They both attended Skidmore College and shared an apartment in New York after graduation. They spoke by telephone nearly every day after Diane moved to London to work for Drexel Burnham.

     Susan, who managed a small chain of stores in New York and Philadelphia, still wears her sister's clothes, as she always did, but now she has an added motivation: "I can still smell Diane."

     A few weeks ago, Susan was sitting in a bar with friends when someone they knew casually started telling jokes.

     "Did you hear what the kids in Lockerbie got for Christmas?"

     "Luggage."

     Stunned by the unexpected reminder, Susan fled. "I got in the car and I lost it," she said. She cried until her eyes hurt.

     Susan believed that her sister's death was worthy of higher public discourse. She saw the Flight 103 bombing as a national issue, like the Challenger disaster or the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Yet, her family had never received a letter of condolence from the President. Nor had any of the other families.

     While such letters may seem a formality, Dershimer said they acknowledge that grief is legitimate, especially when the victim died in sudden and senseless violence. "The survivors are left badly shaken because a lot of their values have been shaken," he explained. "They need some kind of support to verify that, indeed, the death is recognized as a disaster."

     The official silence "baffled me," said Susan. "Why wouldn't they just do it? It's not just a matter of courtesy. You wonder, 'Did someone make such a bad mistake,' or 'Do they know more than they're telling us?' It's the one thing that irritates me more than anything else."

     At meetings of the victims' group, family members also complained that the State Department offered little help with retrieving the remains or personal effects of the relatives, which were held by the Scottish police. No one called to update them on the search efforts 3,000 miles away. The Monettis, in order to claim their son's body, even had to dust their son's upstairs bedroom for fingerprints themselves.

     Like her parents, Susan had become an activist, attending meetings of the victims' organization. About a month ago, she decided to give up the swank, rent-controlled, New York duplex she had shared with Diane and move back to Haddonfield and operate her business from New Jersey.

     "Sometimes, I feel like I want to get so involved," Susan said. "Then I go to one of these meetings and I feel so drained. It's too emotional. Do I want to go on with my life, make it as normal as possible, or do I want to get involved with the whole thing?"