Times Union, Albany, USA
SUNDAY, December 17, 1989
LASTING PAIN FLIGHT 103 FAMILIES CAN'T FORGETBy Craig Brandon Staff writer
The nightmares have not ended for the families whose loved ones perished aboard Pan Am Flight 103.
Many of them are being treated by psychologists and doctors, and for some the tragedy is played out night after night in their dreams.
Last Dec. 21, just four days before Christmas, their children, brothers and sisters died aboard the plane that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, the target of a terrorist bomb.
Now, as the Christmas lights glow once again and carols play on the radio, the signs of joy are, for them, like salt ground into the open wounds of their terrible sorrow.
"Right now there's no joy with anything," said Joanne Hartunian of Niskayuna, mother of Lynne Hartunian, 20, a State University College at Oswego student who died on the flight.
"This is what Christmas is for us now - happiness tinged with pain and sorrow. I can't stand to hear Christmas carols," she said. "There's always an empty seat at the table."
"It's a very painful time," said Barbara Primeau of Troy, mother of twins Jason and Eric Coker, who were students at Rochester and Syracuse universities. "We don't celebrate holidays any more. We just observe them. It's supposed to be a time of peace and joy and my children were peaceful and joyful, but it can never be that way again."
The families are haunted by the photographs of the crash scene: fields littered with twisted metal and bodies. But it is in their similar recurring nightmares that many see what they dare not imagine in their waking hours: the destruction of the blue and white Boeing 747 called "Maid of the Seas."
Some said it is a plane. For others, it's a blue and white bird that suddenly disappears in a flash. Then the sky is filled with silent people, falling endlessly six miles above the Earth. Most of the floating people are strangers, seeming to cry out for help. Then one of the faces looks familiar, just before it hits the ground.
"I dream that the plane is coming apart and I can see the bodies falling out," said Georgia Nucci of Claverack, who lost her son, Syracuse University student Christopher Jones.
For Nucci it was the second Christmas in a row in which she lost a child overseas. Her daughter, Jennifer, 18, died of diabetes and liver complications while studying in Ecuador in 1987.
Sorrow is only one emotion felt by the families. There is also anger and the endless unanswered questions about what really happened and why. A year later, many of the pieces of the puzzle are still missing. They blame Pan Am and the federal government for not doing more to protect passengers and more to find out what really happened.
"It turned out that the security was nothing but an illusion," said Primeau, who has been out of work on disability since the tragedy.
"I feel like I've been betrayed," said Joseph Hartunian, father of Lynne. "It was an act of war and our government did nothing."
"The way we are getting information, the way it is slowly unfolding is slow agony," said Richard Hartunian, Lynne's older brother, who went to Scotland and talked with the farmer who found his sister's body.
They also believed that the government and Pan Am have not provided even the most minimal comforts to the victims' families.
When Nucci went to pick up her son's body at Kennedy Airport, she found it in a plain box, stacked up with the others, in an open-air livestock warehouse.
"They were stacked like freight," she said. "They brought him over on a forklift."
Instead of his name, the box said only that it contained "Victim 29."
"There was no one from Pan Am there," she said. "No one from the government. They sneaked those bodies back here."
"They died for their country, just the way a soldier might have done," said Primeau, who sent back a letter of condolence from President Bush because she felt nothing was being done. "They weren't killed for who they were. They were killed because they were Americans. We trusted our government and the airlines to protect our children. We had too much faith in them."
Eleanor Hudson of Albany said she was still getting back bits of her daughter Melina's luggage after it was identified in Lockerbie. Among the sad remains was one of the sensitive teenager's notebooks, in which she had written, "No one dies unless they're forgotten."
Melina's classmates at the Albany Academy for Girls have made 270 luminaria candles with the names of the victims on them and the Hudsons will be taking them to Lockerbie for a memorial service on Thursday, the anniversary of the disaster.
Surprisingly, however, the families are not as angry with whoever planted the bomb on the plane.
"Outsiders have trouble understanding that," said Primeau. "These terrorists are raised to hate Americans. There's no reason to be surprised about what they would try to do. They are a known factor."
"Our anger is not directed as much toward the terrorists," said Joanne Hartunian. "We feel they should be dealt with, of course, but they were doing something they felt justified in doing. What we are angry about is the slipshod security at the airports. We are angry with Pan Am, the airports and the FAA for allowing this to happen. They had warnings about it. They were told what to look for: a Toshiba radio. It's incredible that no one wanted to look."
The latest version of events, suggesting that a Palestinian named Mohammed Abu Talb may have put the bomb on the plane, has also not brought them much relief.
"I'm totally disinterested in Talb," said Nucci. "I don't care about the perpetrators. They're like soldiers in the army, doing what they are told to do. I'm furious with the airline that made the decision to ignore the warnings they had. I'd like to see criminal charges brought against Pan Am and the intelligence people who withheld the warnings.
"It was like parking a car in the Bronx and leaving the keys in the ignition," she said. "Pan Am negligently allowed this to happen."
Instead of relief from the government or the airline, the families said, they found their greatest consolation in each other.
"It's like we've known each other for years," said Joanne Hartunian. "Our friends and neighbors try to understand, but there's no one who can really know what we feel except another family who went through this. We couldn't have made it without them. There is a bond between us. We have run up some large phone bills, but we don't care. We needed to talk and comfort each other. We're still trying to get through this day by day. We're all walking down the same path."
"We talk on the phone every day," said Nucci, who is editor of a newsletter for the families. "We trust one another as we trust no one else. We can laugh, cry, scream if we want. All is understood and accepted."
In the past year, the family members have appeared repeatedly on national television and been interviewed by national newspapers and magzines.
As a result, they have lost a lot of their reluctance about expressing their feelings to the public.
"I can get in front of 22 cameras now and I don't get nervous or tongue-tied," said Nucci. "There was this overnight transformation from being shy to not really caring what people thought about me. The issue was much more important than that."
"We wanted to let America know what we went through," said Joanne Hartunian. "We have gone public out of a sense of responsibility. All of this takes an incredible amount of energy."
They are negotiating with several producers for a television movie about the tragedy. The money would go into a fund to help the families with counseling and expenses.
Besides their mental distress, all of the families said they had experienced physical disorders as well.
"I have a lot of joint problems and a weakened immune system," said Nucci. "I've been picking up a lot of infections."
"I find it real hard to get myself motivated to go to work," said Primeau, a real estate company employee. "I found it hard to remember anything. I'm usually very outgoing and every once in a while I feel a flash of the old me, but I really think the old me doesn't exist any more. It's hard to sustain any real joy about anything."
For Nucci, there was a bigger problem to deal with.
"I am no longer a mother," she said. "That alters my future to a great degree. So much that I identified with has been swept away. I have to build a completely new life."
Eleanor Hudson said that although the nightmares have subsided, the difficulties have not. She has a "Pan Am room" in her husband's office in which information about the tragedy is kept.
"I still work on this five or six hours a day," she said. "I told my family that we were going to be sad on December 21st and that after that we'd be happy for Christmas. I hope we can go through with that."