Flight 103's BITTER LEGACY
Eleven months after 189 Americans died in the Pan Am disaster at Lockerbie, Scotland, their relatives remain emotionally and psychologically scarred by their loss - and angry at what many perceive as their government's insensitivity to their plight. See end of text for sidebar - An Early VictoryBY PETER MARKS. Peter Marks is a Newsday staff writer
THEY ARE NOT like the rest of us. Once, they were like the rest of us: Mothers, sons, wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, husbands. But no longer. Now the photos they pin to their clothing, snapshots of dead mothers, sons, wives, sisters, brothers, fathers, husbands, inform the world of their new status: terrorism's pallbearers.
They could have been any of us, awaiting the arrival of a plane from London four days before Christmas, a plane carrying college students on breaks, bankers on business and newlyweds on honeymoons. That afternoon, they turned on their TVs and went numb at the sight of a burning Scottish village, carpeted in debris from a jet destroyed by a bomb. Over and over, the words flashed across their screens: Pan Am 103.
That afternoon, the relatives of the 259 people aboard the plane, 189 of them Americans, stopped being like the rest of us. They became something else in their anger and bewilderment: a huge, tormented family of mourners, some sealed off in their grief from the rest of the world, others seeing and phoning each other constantly to remind themselves of their shared loss and their shared need to understand how it could have happened, how a bomb could have been smuggled aboard a jumbo jet to shatter an incalculable number of lives.
THE INTENSITY of their grief is frightening to an outsider. At a recent
meeting of relatives in Haddonfield, N.J., to discuss airport security
and developments in the investigation of the bombing, a middle-age woman
who lost a child on the jet stood at the back of the auditorium and shrieked
at a State Department official who had been invited to address the group.
His words, intended to placate, backfired instead. "HOW DARE YOU!" she screamed, her voice freezing the others in their seats. "I AM GRIEVING THE LOSS OF MY 20-YEAR-OLD SON! DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT THAT MEANS? I DON'T HAVE A SON ANYMORE AND YOU STAND UP THERE AND SPEAK TO THESE PEOPLE IN THIS WAY? HOW DARE YOU!"
At any other public gathering, someone in charge might have gently tugged the woman by the elbow and guided her outside to help her regain her composure. But not at this meeting or among these people. They sat quietly, not even turning to see who was letting go.
"We're all equal," said Wendy Giebler, a Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., woman whose husband of nine months, William D. Giebler Jr., died on Pan Am 103. She says she sleepwalks through her days, looking forward only to the monthly meeting with other Pan Am relatives. "It was an instant bond with these people. It is very difficult being a young widow, but these people have been wonderful. They understand."
Eleven months after one of the most devastating terrorist acts in American history, the days run together in a river of despair and bitterness for many who lost relatives on the flight. They speak of black days and sleepless nights, of reliving Dec. 21, 1988, over and over and over again, of feeling different from other people and finding it impossible to resume their normal lives. And they speak of their sense of betrayal.
In the months after the disaster, the relatives learned there were threats
made prior to Dec. 21 against Pan Am flights out of Frankfurt, West Germany,
where Flight 103 originated - and where the bomb, concealed in a radio,
is believed to have been placed on board. Reports in the news media about
the lax security at airports in Frankfurt and London only deepened their
feelings of isolation and outrage. "They say it gets better over time,
but it doesn't," said Bonnie O'Connor.
Her brother, John Ahern - a close friend of Giebler - was killed on Pan Am 103, returning to Long Island for Christmas from his home in London. The dining room table of O'Connor's Rockville Centre home is covered with news clippings and Xerox copies of the countless letters she has written about the disaster to congressmen, federal officials and other family members. "Most people pity us, really. I don't really care. Even my closest friends, when I bring up something, they sort of listen but they don't really want to know. It's hard." The relatives have banded together in a way that is perhaps unparalleled in the history of victims of terrorism.
They formed a group, Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, an organization that now lobbies for improvements in airport security, presses officials in the United States and abroad for more information about the disaster and provides emotional support for family members. They have staged demonstrations across the country, testified several times before Congress, dispatched a delegation to London - with another planned for West Germany - and successfully lobbied for the establishment of an independent commission, appointed by the President Bush to investigate the bombing of the jet.
The group was formed last February, after a small number of families, frustrated by the lack of information from Washington and what they perceived as shoddy treatment at the hands of the State Department, held a news conference in Manhattan to express their anger. Until then, the only contact some of the families had had with the federal government was the FBI agent who came to their doors unannounced to ask questions about the person on board that they knew. The relatives at the news conference that day made no effort to conceal their rage.
THE press conference showed that the government wanted to ignore this, but the rest of the world didn't want to," said Paul Hudson, an Albany lawyer who lost a teenage daughter on the flight, and one of the early organizers of the group. The organization elected a board of directors and officers, set up an array of committees - legal, political action, media, compensation, financial - and even began to publish a monthly newsletter. The logo was a map of Scotland on which one place was identified: Lockerbie.
As word spread about the existence of the group, the majority of relatives of the Americans on the flight joined Victims of Pan Am 103, though some families have opted not to participate. In Great Britain, which had the second highest number of its nationals aboard, the families have formed a separate group. The families of Pan Am 103 are, in some ways, no different from others who have lost someone close in a violent manner.
But the ways in which their grief has been played out in public, the ways in which they have come together and the ways in which they continue to put their case before the American public, have made the organization one of the most visible victims rights group in the United States today.
Daniel Pipes, a Philadelphia-based foreign policy analyst who has been following the group's progress, likened the group to an organization that was formed in 1979 by the relatives of the 52 American hostages in Iran. But unlike that group - which consisted almost entirely of people with close ties to the State Department - the Victims of Pan Am 103 are everyday people who, for the most part, had little first-hand experience in the public arena. "What they bring is moral force," said Pipes. "And I am impressed with how sophisticated and organized they are. Even the newsletter they put out; not just the fact that they have one, but the quality."
The families, with their access to the media and outspoken views, have been something of a thorn for the State Department. Although President Bush met with representatives of the families in April, many of the relatives remain critical of what they see as the government's refusal to address their concerns, including some kind of punishment or reprisal against Iran, the country that has been identified in news reports as the likely sponsor of the Palestinian terrorist groups suspected of having planted the bomb.
State Department officials have acknowledged that in the days after
the bombing, they made "some mistakes" in the way they handled requests
and queries from wildly distraught family members. They have counseled
the families to be patient as they seek to upgrade security and press the
search for the culprits. "We are doing all that we can to make sure that
Pan Am 103 is a singular event," Frank Moss, an official of State's Office
of Counterterrorism, told family members in Haddonfield, N. J., in June.
The only way to do that is strengthen airline security. It's not easy. It's not going to happen overnight." That kind of assurance makes some of the relatives furious. "Why was Pan Am able to ignore several bomb warnings?"
Vicky Cummock, a Coral Gables, Fla., interior designer who lost
her husband, John, on the flight, angrily demanded of Moss at the meeting.
She was referring to reports that an Arab man phoned the American embassy
in Helsinki, Finland, in early December, saying a bomb would be placed
on a Pan Am jet out of Frankfurt.
There were also reports that as a result, a number of American diplomats were warned off Pan Am flights, an assertion denied by U. S. officials. "I know you don't believe in ghoulish coincidences. This is one," Moss replied, his choice of words stunning his audience - and leading a woman in the back of the auditorium to shriek her anguished response. Even with its organizational skills, however, the group has fallen victim to the pent-up anger and frustration of many of its members.
Two months ago, Victims of Pan Am 103 suffered a kind of collective nervous breakdown. The group split in two, with 40 families joining a new group organized by Paul Hudson, and the rest remaining in the original organization, with Bert Ammerman, a River Vale, N.J., man who lost his brother on the flight, as president.
Ammerman and Hudson, who no longer speak, accuse each other of putting ego ahead of purpose and of wanting things done their own way. The rift, according to members of both factions, grew out of an intensifying rivalry between Hudson, who once worked for Ralph Nader, and Ammerman, a high school administrator.
For much of the spring and summer, Hudson, the first president of the group, was in Washington, trying to push legislation for the independent investigation through Congress, while Ammerman, who chaired the group's political action committee, became more and more influential on the 15-member board.
Their differences, over secondary issues ranging from the assignment of film rights to the families' stories to whether the organization's by-laws were being violated by the calling of unsanctioned meetings, came to a head at the June meeting, where the board voted 8-7 to install Ammerman as president.
"It's a sad chapter," Ammerman said. "He has broken away and taken some
people with him. It's a shame, because Paul has done a lot of good things.
He's just become obsessed with doing it his way." Hudson, who held an organizational
meeting in Canton, Ohio, for his group in late September, said he spoke
to a sociologist who told him that rifts like these are not unexpected.
"We felt it was better to have two organizations working on goals rather
than one group that was paralyzed by internal conflict." While family members
say that both men are deeply committed to the relatives' work, even they
"People are all working for the same cause," said Shirley Scott of Huntington, whose 22-year-old daughter, Sally, was aboard Flight 103, returning from London, where she had opened a lunchtime catering business that she called For Starters. "We support both sides. We support Paul. We support Bert."
How the division will affect the group's effectiveness is unclear. But in spite of their differences, members of both Pan Am victims' groups to know they are forever, inextricably linked. "On Dec. 21," Hudson wrote in a letter to other relatives in September, "it was tragedy, not choice, that brought us all together." Being in the groups is both a mission and a form of therapy. Since the families of the 189 Americans aboard Flight 103 are from all over the country - with most concentrated in New York and New Jersey - the monthly meetings move from one member's community to another.
They typically attract between 80 and 100 relatives. "Belonging to the
group means a lot to me," said Shirley Scott. "I find I like being in a
room with a lot of people who know exactly how I feel." Shirley Scott does
not force her son, Tim, to attend family meetings. She says he finds it
difficult to be in a roomful of people grieving as deeply as he grieves,
where one is apt to witness someone overcome with emotion. "People do cry
at the meetings, and when they do, everyone will gather round you," she
said. Like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, some of the mothers
and wives of those who died on the flight march on the 21st of each month
in front of the Pan Am Building in Manhattan as a way of reminding the
world that what happened in Lockerbie should never be allowed to happen
They cannot bear the idea of the disaster fading from public consciousness; it never fades from theirs.
Each month, they march with banners and buttons that say, "Pan Am 103: The Truth Must Be Known." At the end of the lunchtime demonstration, a relative reads the names of the men, women and children who died. The honor roll of Pan Am 103. "It was so moving, I had trouble myself standing out there, watching them," said Rabbi Jacob Goldberg, a bereavement expert who is counseling several widows of men who died on the flight. He takes no fee. "I looked at it not with pity but with deep respect.
What they are doing, that's sacred." On a recent weekday afternoon, in a consultation room at St. Clare's Hospital in Manhattan, the rabbi met with one of the Pan Am widows for the first time. Red-eyed, she talked haltingly of her depthless despair, her lack of interest in life, her suicide fantasies. "We've all thought about it," she said. "I would be amazed if you didn't have general anger," the rabbi said. "Anger at life.
Anger at the world. It affects me, too, but I don't have to look at it every day. You do." "I want to deal with it," she said. "I can't talk about it to people who ask, out of idle curiosity. I know I am angry, but I don't want that dictating the rest of my life." The relatives of Pan Am 103, like members of any extended family, have evolved their own private rituals of remembrance: They refer to the April 3 vigil in Washington, the unsuccessful campaign to halt an ill-conceived barbecue that was held for the people of Lockerbie last June with Pan Am's help, and the hearings before Congress in September.
This year, few are thinking about how they will spend Dec. 25 - they say Christmas will never be the same - but about where they will be on Dec. 21. There is a weariness about these people, the exhaustion born of a permanent indentation in their lives. Eleanor Hudson drives past the cemetery outside Albany that contains the remains of her 16-year-old daughter, Melina, and is seized by an unbearable urge to take her home. "I would have sat in seat 29A for Melina," she said, her eyes welling with tears, her body slack with the weight of her fury. "I would have been better off if they had killed me."
Talking last month in her husband's law office in Albany, Eleanor Hudson seemed much more in control than at an earlier gathering of relatives in Haddonfield, where she had looked disheveled and worn a huge wooden crucifix around her neck. With a distracted look in her eyes, she handed out Xerox copies of a poem written by a friend entitled "Murder on the Pan Am." Remove all your keys and change I know this all seems very strange We've reason for concern Leave your suitcase at the gate Our X-ray cameras penetrate Your film is not destroyed Such terrorist acts we must eliminate We can't allow the crimes They try to penetrate We've misdealings in the sky.
* * * The town of Lockerbie has little to recommend to a tourist. Nestled in the hilly farmland of southwestern Scotland, it is a traditional market village of unremarkable sandstone buildings and dreary housing estates, as developments are called in Great Britain. Even the library, situated in a storefront off the main square, offers scant insight into the vil- lage's distinctiveness, providing only minimalist guidebooks listing cinemas and specialty shops.
On the morning of Dec. 22, 1988, as hordes of reporters and cameramen flooded the town, waiting for luminaries like Prince Andrew and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to complete tours of the disaster areas, the townspeople were in their yards, picking pieces of Flight 103 out of their gardens. Overnight, the village had been transformed, and not just physically. Lockerbie had unwittingly been added to an exclusive list of places that were instantly recognizable for a single man-made horror. Chernobyl. Tenerife. Bhopal.
Most residents were too busy cleaning up or grieving to reflect on the town's new status: Eleven Lockerbie citizens were killed when the jet's fiery remains rained down on their homes. The images of those days are difficult to erase: A phalanx of Scottish police, moving as slowly as a funeral procession, combing the lip of a hill on a golf course fairway for bodies and personal effects; a farm field three miles outside of town littered with sneakers, seat belts, wing flaps and backpacks; the tiny markers that dotted the craggy hillsides, identifying the location of a body or body part.
For one reporter who was there, the most indelible memory was of a small, haunted man named Jimmy Beattie, a man who had himself witnessed an event 60 hours earlier that he could not get out of his mind. Beattie was standing outside his house, a few hundred yards from where the cockpit of Pan Am Flight 103 fell to earth, talking about what he had seen that night. He had been watching television when he heard what sounded like distant thunder. He walked outside and watched as the chunk of plane dropped out of sky and landed with a thud. Grabbing a flashlight, he ran to the wreckage. He counted seven bodies, all unclothed, one still quivering. He had not slept since. "I will never forget that. Never," he said.
Despite the horrible associations, more and more relatives of those aboard Flight 103 are making pilgrimages to Lockerbie. They started arriving in the days after the disaster, carrying dental charts to identify their kin, and they kept on coming even after most of the bodies had been returned. (Some bodies were never identified or accounted for.)
They come to experience the place they have read so much about, to speak to police and the local people - even to visit the precise spot in the verdant countryside where the body of their son or sister or mother was found. "I felt very at peace there," Wendy Giebler wrote in an open letter to other members of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 after returning from Scotland in June. She hooked up with a taxi driver there who serves as an unofficial (and unpaid) tour guide for many who have gone over and he took her everywhere - even to the makeshift warehouse where thousands of unclaimed items from the jet are being stored.
Giebler desperately wanted everything back that belonged to her husband, known by his nickname, Jay. The State Department, she said, had been useless in retrieving items. "When I spoke to a man at State about getting back my husband's wedding ring, he said to me, `Lady, get on with your life,' " Giebler said in an interview. She eventually got it back through the Scottish police, but a few items were still missing when she visited the warehouse. "It was very organized. Everything on tables by category: carry-bags, sunglasses, clothing. Jay had a datebook, and taped inside was a wedding picture of ours. I found a book that looked like it, but I couldn't be sure, so I left it there. "But as I was leaving, I thought, let me take another look. I looked inside the back cover: Sure enough, there was a piece of tape - and, I couldn't believe it, stuck to the tape was the bottom half of my wedding picture!" Her eyes lit up at the memory. An explosion of such power, and she had in her hands Jay's datebook. "That," she said, "was like a miracle."
* * * "His things are in here," Helen Tobin says pleasantly. "Would you like to see them?" An open, gregarious woman, Tobin leads the way into the study of her airy Hempstead home, lowers herself into a chair and slides a narrow cardboard box out from under it.
She opens the flaps and removes a pair of striped boxer shorts that appear to have been pierced by a thousand tiny fragments. "Look, look at these," she commands, holding them out in front of her. "They laundered them. Can you imagine? They laundered everything." Her son Mark's things came home months after his body was returned from Scotland. A special representative from the Hempstead Post Office escorted them to her door. The Scottish police were so meticulous about the treatment of items recovered from the crash that they cleaned and pressed any piece of clothing they found, no matter how ragged.
Helen Tobin rummages through the box, feeling the texture of items once touched by her sixth child. So many things came back: His penknife came back, the one his father gave him. His rugby shirts, his diaries, his golf clubs, his friendship bracelets, his BBC pen, his underwear, his books, his London theater guide, his journal; it all came back. Even his travel alarm clock came back, its hands frozen at 7:20. The plane disappeared over Scotland a little after 7. "He took four golf clubs," Helen Tobin said, the memories stored as neatly as linen. "We got the putter and the wood and one of the irons. I think it was a 7."
Mark, who caddied for his father at the Hempstead Golf Club, worked summers as a lifeguard at the Marriott in Uniondale, and rooted madly for the Islanders, was a sports nut, had dreams, in fact, of being a sports broadcaster. A junior at Fordham, he had enrolled in Syracuse University's London program and was taking courses aimed at improving his presentation and communications skills. He was 21 when he died. His mother was going to get him a sweater with a Celtic pattern; now she is planning a headstone for him with a Celtic cross.
In the den of her home, Helen Tobin pushes a tape into her VCR. It is a new and unexpected gift recovered from Lockerbie, a video of Mark in his London presentation class. A Plainview production company, Island Video, has reproduced the tape at no charge. On the video, Mark wears the rugby shirt that his mother now keeps in the box under the chair. "That's so him," she observes each time Mark moves or says something in a way that brings him back to her. "It's like having him on the other end of the phone."
Helen Tobin tries to make most of the family meetings. She is a quiet but determined participant, rarely rising to speak at the weekend sessions, which can run from 9 to 5 without a lunch break. When hearings before Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) on the Lockerbie disaster were shown on the C-SPAN cable channel in late September, she was glued to the set, taking notes.
THERE are moments of peace and there are moments, unexpected moments, when the sights and sounds of Dec. 21 come rushing back at the families of Flight 103. Stan Maslowski had a flashback on a warm evening in July. He was at his wife's dress shop in Haddonfield, in south Jersey, where he now works, when the phone rang. It was a group member from Ohio. A United Airlines jet bound for Chicago from Denver had crashed in Sioux City, Iowa. Its final destination was to have been Philadelphia. Maslowski assumed that he had an authority that few others in the world possessed: He lost a daughter, Diane, 30, on Pan Am 103. He decided that he had to get in his car and drive, of all places, to Philadelphia International Airport. He simply had to be there. Perhaps, he thought to himself, he could act as spokesman for the waiting relatives, who would be in no condition to speak for the cameras.
He called two other Pan Am relatives who lived in suburban Philadelphia
and drove through the rush hour. When he got to the United terminal, "We
identified ourselves to United personnel, and told them, in the event there
were families there, we had the experience and the grief and the compassion
to furnish that no psychologist or airline person could furnish." It turned
out that no one on board the Denver-Chicago leg was going on to Philadelphia.
False alarm. Maslowski and the others went home.
As Maslowski spoke in the lobby restaurant of a Teaneck, N. J., hotel in which the families in the Ammerman faction were holding their September meeting, a little boy from Brooklyn named Alan Hawkins who had lost his father on the Flight 103 walked up and tugged Maslowski's elbow. "Just a minute," Maslowski said to Alan. "I have to talk and give information so people around the country know what we are doing." Alan thought for a minute. "What are we doing?" he asked. "We're making the world a little more informed about what goes on," he replied. Stan Maslowski is consumed, with a father's devotion to a daughter, to giving meaning to what happened.
He has resigned his job with a perfume company to spend more time with his wife. His younger daughter, Susan, left her job and moved home. They have postponed their plans to build their retirement home on the island of Maui, where they have some land. For how long, he does not know. As long as it takes, he says. "People say to me, Stan, get on with your life. One even said to me, you have other children. I said to them, which one of your children would you want to give up?"
****** An Early Victory ON AUG. 4, the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103
scored what many relatives consider the most significant victory in their
efforts to uncover and correct deficiencies in aviation security. That
day, after months of lobbying by group members and talks between Congress
and the White House, President Bush signed a bill authorizing the creation
of a seven-member commission to look into the adequacy of United States
aviation security procedures in the wake of the Pan Am 103 disaster. The
group had been seeking an investigation independent of the Federal Aviation
Administration and others looking in the crash that could look at FAA procedures
and recommend changes.
The members of the panel, appointed in September by the president and Congress, include four members of Congress, a former labor secretary, a general and a lawyer from Virginia. "We believe that the 270 lives lost on Flight 103 could have been saved - that this bombing could have been prevented," Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 said in a statement to a Senate subcommittee earlier this year.
"We believe that those who conclude that little or nothing can be done about terrorist attacks on airlines are grievously wrong." Airport security is just one of a number of unresolved issues surrounding the bombing of the Boeing 747. And it may be years before all the legal and political issues are settled. As American, British and West German authorities continue to study evidence recovered from the more than 800 square miles of Scottish countryside over which plane debris was scattered, many of the families have retained aviation lawyers and filed lawsuits against Pan Am and the security firm it retained for its operations at Frankfurt, where Pan Am 103 originated.
Lee Kreindler, a Manhattan lawyer who represents 85 families of Pan
Am 103 passengers, and has been designated lead counsel in the case, said
he is seeking punitive damages for alleged security lapses, in addition
to compensatory damages. Although the disaster occurred in Britain, the
case involving the American carrier will be tried in federal court in Brooklyn.
Under the terms of the Warsaw Convention, an international pact governing
airline liability signed by the United States, an airline's insurers can
only be required to pay a maximum of $75,000 per passenger to the survivors.
According to Kreindler, U. S. courts in the past have refused to award punitive damages under the Warsaw Convention. But he says that he will argue that Pan Am's security was so lax in Frankfurt on the day Flight 103 took off that the penalty ceiling should be set aside so that punitive damages can be assessed.
THE airline faces possible fines as a result of inspections by FAA officials
of its Frankfurt operations in May and August. And in September, the FAA
levied $630,000 in penalties against the airline for alleged security violations
after the Lockerbie disaster, including alleged failures to fully screen
passengers on Flight 103. Pan Am officials argue that the FAA violations
are administrative problems, rather than substantive errors.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues into who planted the bomb. While investigators have recovered material from the jet that indicated the presence of the plastic explosive Semtex, some critical pieces of the bomb that would help identify the bombers, such as the detonator, have never been found.
Although no final determination has been reached, officials in Britain and the United States identify the leading suspect in the bombing as a Palestinian terrorist organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which may have planted the bomb in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a U. S. warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Peter Marks