NEWS YORK DIARY `Wall of Silence' Angers KinDennis Duggan
Some of the grieving and, by now, embittered relatives of the victims of Pan American Flight 103 that crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, wore photographs of their loved ones in a heart-wrenching effort yesterday morning to put flesh-and-blood to the bare bones of statistics.
You can say 270 - the number of people who died in the explosion of that jumbo jet six weeks ago - over and over in your mind, but it isn't until you are confronted with the living wreckage of the survivors and their stories that you begin to grasp the enormity of that tragedy.
At a press conference organized by the National Victims Center, a group founded three years ago by the children of Sunny von Bulow, close to 100 relatives came to break what they called a "wall of silence" that has formed since the air tragedy four days before Christmas. One by one they rose to speak and in their sometimes cracking voices you could feel the nights of unspeakable anguish they have endured since that terrible day. Always there was the still unanswered question: Why were some told of the bomb threat but not others?
I sat with Phyllis Rosenthal, whose daughter Andrea would have been 23 years old on Sunday. "The thought of her walking onto that death-trap with her backpack will haunt me for the rest of my days," she said. Her daughter was graduated from Brown University last May and was given a three-month trip as a graduation present. "We were so relieved when she got to London. We called her several times the day before that flight. She laughed and laughed and said, `Ill be home tomorrow.' "
Since then, Phyllis Rosenthal says, she has gotten the run-around from government agencies, including the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, and, when she talks of Pan Am, all she remembers is "robotic voices." "We can't sue the government, our lawyer tells us, but we are going to sue the airline for criminal negligence for not telling all the passengers about the warning," she says.
The warning she talks about was posted in the American Embassy in Moscow on Dec. 13 and signed by William Kelly, administrative counselor of the embassy. It read, in part, that "post has been notified by the Federal Aviation Administration that on December 5, 1988, an unidentified individual telephoned a U.S. diplomatic facility in Europe that sometime within the next two weeks there would be a bombing attempt against a Pan American aircraft flying from Frankfurt to the United States." It added "Pan Am has also been notified," and continued: the embassy "leaves to the discretion of individual travelers any decisions on altering personal travel plans or changing to another American carrier." That warning was never given to the travelers who boarded Flight 103 at Heathrow airport for a trip to the United States. They didn't know it but they had only a few more minutes to live.
Betty Capasso, 46, from Marine Park in Brooklyn, wore her 21-year-old son Greg's picture on her green sweater and her voice broke again and again as she recalled his love of life and his talent as a law student at New York University. "It hurts so much," she said as her husband, Sal, 46, stood at her side. "We will never be happy again. For us, life has ended." She reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a plastic-covered card that bore a single, red rose. On the back were despairing words written by David Nelson, a close friend of their son and a film student at NYU: "Greg, why were you in that twisted wreck? Greg - why is a stupid question I know . . . This thing has taught me nothing."
For the Capassos, like many in that pain-filled room yesterday, the unanswered question of why some were warned and others were not has dogged them for weeks and what answers they have been given seem to smack of either elitism or pure bombast. "If we had known of that bomb threat I'd have told my son to get off that plane and we would have bought him a ticket on a boat," Betty Capasso said.
In an angry statement, Paul Hudson, an Albany attorney whose 16-year-old daughter Melina died in the crash, said, "We were shocked to learn that the FAA had issued written alerts . . . to U.S. embassies, the airline, British officials and the U.S. military personnel in Frankfurt. However, the warning alert was not available to passengers or crew of Flight 103." He noted that then-President Ronald Reagan had said so many threats are received that to make them available to the public would stop all air traffic. "The FAA's own reports," Hudson said, "show a relatively small number of threats to aircraft - 400 to 500 per year out of 6 million flights - and a positively tiny number of high level threats, variously reported at 22 to 24 in all of 1988. The threat to Pan Am Flight 103 . . . was apparently classified as such a high-level threat."
Many of the grieving families I spoke to yesterday said phone calls they had made to their elected representatives had gone unanswered.
Fireman John Jermyn, 32, of Ladder 122 in Park Slope, who lost his sister Kathleen, 21, in the crash, says that "the tragedy is old news now, but for us it is a devastation." Yesterday, he also was mourning the death of fellow firefighter John Devaney, who lost his life in a fire in Red Hook last week while searching for trapped victims. Some of his sister's personal effects are still being held by the British, and a State Department spokesman told me "the British consider these things to be evidence."
All Jermyn knows is that his sister is dead and no one seems to care any longer. "Everyone has gone on to other things. I live in Staten Island and I called Guy Molinari, my congressman, four times. When I called a fifth time, I said to someone in his office he'd hear from me in the media. He called back right away but I was so angry I told him I was too busy to talk. "It looks to me as though everyone is trying to sweep this under the rug. They want to forget what happened. I will never forget it. This is a long way from being over as far as I am concerned."