I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness. The only ones who can forgive are dead; the living have no right to forget.
The deep sense of isolation endemic to this time exacerbated the shock and confusion following the crash of Pan Am 103. This was an era where expressions of grief and distress were often best left unspoken. As a nation, we watched, transfixed, as families mourned on the public stage. Within a few months, we’d collectively start to look away.
In the meantime, the Hunts and dozens of other families would soon be confronted with the ugly knowledge that their loved ones were the victims of a heinous crime. Though faced with an indifferent government and callous bureaucracy, the families would, individually and collectively, achieve more than anyone would have thought possible.
December 23, 1988. Honeoye.
We’d lost far too many friends and classmates in the early 80s. Each death came as a shock, but the prevailing thought of the day was to move on, to “get over” loss as quickly as possible. We had no social media with which to share the initial news or grieve collectively, nor could we access a public gallery encompassing the memories of a life cut short. We grieved quietly and privately before consigning those lost to memory.
I thought I’d become almost inured to the pain of loss, yet I was completely unprepared for the emotions that engulfed me on the morning of December 23, 1988. I awoke to a numbness that gradually built into a bewildering sense of anguish. Though I seldom wrote over short breaks, I tried to gather and clear my thoughts by articulating them in my journal. The entry contained some blather about the shattered myth of youthful invincibility, but the passage was vapid and disingenuous. We’d been painfully aware of the fragility of youth for years. Something about Karen’s death was different; it had pierced deep, leaving me bewildered and confused. Why should her death affect me so deeply when the losses of those close to me did not? What gave me the right to grieve for a complete stranger? Why did it hurt so much?
If only I’d thought of asking the last question. Instead I floundered, never quite articulating my feelings to my family. I cried for nights afterward. Each morning I would scold myself for believing that I had the right to mourn. Thirty miles away, a family was experiencing something I couldn’t possibly comprehend, and I felt presumptuous for letting my tears flow.
The ache, the horrible sense that I’d lost a friend, continued to fester and grow.
The thought of all of those lives ending in Scottish pastures haunted me; my grief was becoming an existential crisis.
I’d lost my faith 4 years ago. Now I wanted it back.
News reports added details in piecemeal fashion. My vocabulary began to expand with the unfamiliar words that would resonate for a lifetime. Tundergarth, when many of the bodies and the cockpit fell. Sherwood Crescent, where 11 residents were killed by the falling wing. Rosebank Crescent, site of Ella Ramsden’s apartment at 71 Park Place which took the brunt of the impact from a large portion of the fuselage. Dumfries, the district containing Lockerbie. And of course, Lockerbie, a small town reminiscent of so many around the Finger Lakes. I felt for the people there, as well. I felt for all of them.
December 23, 1988. Webster.
Robyn Hunt quietly sat in the living room with some friends. The Christmas tree stood in a nearby corner corner, but Karen’s death had stripped they joy from the holiday, and the pile of presents under was now a painful reminder of how empty Christmas would be that year.
The girls were doing their best to sooth their stricken friend when a bell on the tree rang. The teens froze for a moment before Robyn, recalling the immortal line from It’s a Wonderful Life, picked up a bell. Her friends joined her, and the girls furiously rang their bells.
Karen’s memorial service took place 4 days later at St. Paul Church in Webster. Over 500 mourners sat in silence as Lynn DeLuca stepped up to the altar. Six days ago Karen Hunt, Lynn’s best friend since kindergarten, died thousands of miles away. Lynn chocked back tears as she tried her best to articulate who Karen was, recounting childhood memories and sharing parts of the contents of thoughtful letters shared in college. She concluded with a simple phrase that would echo through the years: “She was beautiful outside and she was beautiful inside.” She wept as she left the altar.
Many of Karen’s friends from high school and college sat in groups scattered throughout the church. Most of the women from the 7th floor of Day Hall were there, and some of her roommates and friends from London made it to the memorial. One drove all the way from Boston. Karen’s boyfriend Mark, who had planned to greet her with a dozen red roses as she arrived in Rochester on the 21st, drove in from Albany.
The service’s tone was upbeat. It was envisioned as a celebration of Karen’s life, but the shock and sadness of the tragedy, less than a week old now, permeated the church in the form of muffled sobs.
Peggy Hunt, who spent 10 day with Karen in November, ascended the alter. She and Karen shared a special bond, and this gave her a small measure of solace in the face of unspeakable tragedy. She spoke in calm, measured tones despite the intensity of her grief as she read Edgar Allen Guest’s “A Child Of Mine,” a poem sent to the family by a mother who had experienced a similar loss:
I’ll lend you for a little while
A child of mine” God said—
For you to love the while she lives
and mourn for when she’s dead.
It may be six or seven years or
forty two or three but will you,
till I call her back,
take care of her for me?
She’ll bring her charms to gladden you and,
should her stay be brief,
you’ll have her nicest memories
as solace for her grief.
I cannot promise she will stay,
since all from earth return
but, there are lessons taught below,
I want this child to learn.
I’ve looked the whole world over,
in my search for teachers true,
and from the things that crowd life’s lane
I have chosen you.
Now will you give her all your love,
nor think the labour vain,
nor hate me when I come to take
this lent child back again?
I fancied that I heard them say,
“Dear Lord Thy Will Be Done”
for all the joys thy child will bring
the risk of grief we’ll run.
We’ll shelter her with tenderness,
we’ll love her while we may,
and for the happiness we’ve known
forever grateful stay.
But, should thy Angels call for her
much sooner than we planned,
we’ll brave the grief that comes
and try to understand.
The next day, investigators formally confirmed what most have suspected for some time: a bomb brought down the plane. Karen Lee Hunt was among the 270 passengers and villagers murdered in the crash of Pan Am 103.
January, 1989. Webster.
Forensics experts continued the onerous task of identifying the dead in Lockerbie, though a number of victims were never recovered. Each family hoped that their loved one won’t be among the missing, though they dreaded the day they’ll receive the call from officials with the news that their daughter, son, husband, wife, brother or sister was identified. Some families lost more than one. A number of parents lost their only child.
On January 3, 1989, the Hunts received word that Karen has been identified. Her body arrived in Rochester on January 5. Karen would have turned 21 in 2 days. Instead of celebrating the milestone, the family began planning her funeral. Fifteen days had passed since she was scheduled to arrive in Rochester.
Robert Hunt didn’t have a passport, and Peggy was in no condition to fly to Scotland to accompany Karen home. Judy, Peggy’s twin sister, agreed to escort the casket back to Rochester. The officials gave her a list of the items found with the body, a list that included rings, bracelets, and a scarf. Though she was fond of earrings, Karen seldom wore metal jewelry, and Judy was unfamiliar with the clothing and other items on the list.
Pan Am officials had warned families from viewing their loved ones’ remains, ostensibly to spare relatives further pain. The motive was more self-serving than altruistic, though: Pan Am’s lawyers knew they were facing a string of lawsuits, and relatives who view the remains were more likely to become litigious. In spite of this, the Hunts requested that the funeral director view the remains. He shared the family’s concern almost immediately, and the Hunts requested a more through forensic analysis.
Nothing matched. The family absorbed yet another cruel blow when they learned that Karen hadn’t come home yet.
Desperate to find Karen before she was buried or worse, cremated, Robert Hunt contacted the State Department to rectify the situation, and to get word out to the other families lest they found themselves burying or cremating the wrong bodies. The officials stonewalled him; they were more worried about stirring up a frenzy than ensuring that families received the remains of their loved ones.
It was the latest in a shocking series of indignities perpetrated by Pan Am and the government, which dated back to the night of the December 21st when officials often refused to release information to anxious relatives. The Hunts finally learned that Karen had indeed boarded the plane from contacts at Syracuse University rather than Pan Am. The state department was reticent to release almost any information at all concerning the crash, and worse was yet to come.
Many families in New York and New Jersey were shocked when they arrive at JFK to pick up the bodies of their loved ones. In contrast to the loving care the people and officials in Lockerbie showered on the victims, the dead are effectively reduced to “freight.” Caskets were piled up in the airport’s livestock area and delivered to families with forklifts. Even in light of the bomb damage to the wreckage, officials in the government and at Pan Am expected all of this to blow over. It was the worst terrorist attack against U.S. civilians to date, yet history seemed to be on their side. Such tragedies had a decided limited life in the media before being eclipsed by the next election, tragedy, or international incident. Pan Am and the government likely anticipated that the same would hold true for Flight 103.
It wouldn’t be the last time they underestimate the collective intelligence, resourcefulness, and resolve of the bereaved.
On the night of the disaster, the Hunts made the difficult decision to share their story and Karen’s with the media. Robert Hunt had since conducted a number of interviews, and his connections and experience served him well. Disgusted by the State Department’s resistance, Robert contacted the national press with the news that the family had received the wrong body. Scottish authorities reacted almost immediately, going so far as to fly officials to Rochester to apologize for the error. As the AP released the story nationally, the government suddenly became remarkably responsive. Scottish officials surmised that though Karen had been properly identified, someone must have accidentally switched her identification with that of another victim. They passed the information to the FBI, which located Karen’s body in Wayland, Massachusetts, just as Pan Am 103 victim Mary Lincoln Johnson’s family was about to bury the casket containing Karen’s body on January 9.
As coroners examined the bodies in Rochester and Wayland to verify the true identity of each victim, the FBI called the Hunts with a question: did Karen wear an anklet? They had found the delicate string of pearls Robyn Hunt made for her sister several years ago; Karen always wore it on her left leg. At last, the Hunts could confirm that Karen had been found.
Karen Lee Hunt finally arrived in Rochester on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, 20 days after what should have been the most joyful of homecomings.
January 8, 1989. Honeoye.
Nearly three weeks had passed since Pan Am 103 fell to earth, yet the words in my journal reflected the lingering confusion: “I feel as though I’ve lost my best friend . . . I don’t know why the death of a complete stranger has had such a powerful effect on my life.” The sadness lingered like a shroud. I craved solitude just a few weeks ago, but the quiet hours of reflection merely exacerbated my grief. I often dealt with grief by avoiding it, as if the temporary distractions of work or pleasant company could provide solace or resolution. There was nothing to distract me from the growing, gnawing sense of despair. I’d lost friends and neighbors to accidents, bullets, and cancer, yet I’d never truly dealt with a sense of loss of this magnitude.
I’d never met Karen, a fact that spared me from the shock of losing of a friend of acquaintance. However, this also worked against me in other ways; I would never know her, and the mystery of who she was and the reality of never being able to know her meant that I would likely never understand my reaction to Karen’s death.
I was at a loss. I was looking at Karen through a pinhole.
January 17, 1989. Nazareth College.
Several of my friends attended the R.L. Thomas High School in Webster. Most graduated with Karen Hunt in 1986. Though none of them were especially close to her, Karen’s death made the beginning of the term bleaker.
More than anyone else, I thought of my friend Lani on the evening of the bombing. Lani and I had known each other since the fall of 1986. I met Warrie, her roommate, in Dr. Graham’s freshman English class. Though we were never particularly close, Warrie and I would visit each other from time to time, and I soon grew a little closer to Lani. We’d drifted apart over the past year, but I’d thought of her since the news of Karen’s death broke.
I found her alone; Warrie had transferred over the break. Sadly, she recounted her memories of Karen from their high school days. Lani told me that Karen was “a very quiet girl who was extremely intelligent. She was nice to everyone she met.” Lani’s tone carried with it a sense of disbelief.
January 18, 1989. Hendricks Chapel, Syracuse University.
Your sons and daughters will be remembered at Syracuse University, so long as any of us shall live, so long as the university shall stand.
Chancellor Melvin Eggers
The soft, mournful sounds of piano music resonated in the background as mourners formed small queues before each of the 35 parchment and leather books placed in Hendricks Chapel. Each family member, student, friend, or professor wrote a message for the victims and their families. Some prefered brevity; others knelt before the books for many minutes to compose long final messages to lost friends. The bereaved filled the pews, their faces reflecting the shock and grief elicited by a tragedy not yet one month distant.
A friend added the following line to Karen Hunt’s book: “I will never forget my best friend Karen. She will always be there for me and for everyone else. Karen, all I can say is I’m going to miss you, but all our memories — the ones I was lucky enough to share with you — will be with me forever. She was the best.”
The next day, over 12,000 students and supporters joined the families of the 35 Syracuse students for a memorial service in the Carrier Dome. Speaking in a slow, clear voice, Chancellor Melvin Eggers told the assembly, “at Syracuse University, we have sustained a grievous blow, but you who are the parents have been struck by a bolt almost lethal.” He recounted the many students who approached him and others to tell stories of how their lives were enriched by those aboard Pan Am Flight 103. Each of the 35 would be honored in a new memorial, the Place of Remembrance.
February 2, 1989. Nazareth College.
In The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103, Joan Deppa, the Syracuse University professor who drove intrusive journalists from queues of grieving students near Hendricks Chapel, discusses several studies on the effects of tragedy on adolescents:
As a campus Chaplin, Rothermel also knew that students would be profoundly affected by the tragedy, even those who knew none of the victims personally. “It hit them hard, and it hit them close, and it hit them because it was their peers. For people of the general college age, there is no bigger event, no bigger story, no bigger happening than the death of their peers, because this goes so contrary to their whole life style, their understanding, their sense of—they’re young and they know they’re not immortal, but they like to think they can go on . . . And the consequences, the larger picture, the long-term ramifications, don’t enter into their minds, so this happening brought the big things to bear on their lives in such a powerful way.”
As Deppa notes, “The Pan Am deaths were violent, unexpected and caused by a deliberate, unexplained act, all factors that increase the distress of the bereaved.” Ken Dornstein was a college student in 1988; he lost his brother David on the flight, and describes the consequences of Pan Am 103 perfectly when he writes, “I have come to think of the impact of my brother’s death in dramatic terms: a curtain dropping on my youth, a terrible storm that left me shipwrecked, the start of a new life.”
On September 11, 2001, millions of us would feel the effects of grief by proxy. That tragedy made it possible for people to understand that we can, and should mourn, commemorate, and remember the lives of others, including those of people we’ve never met.
September 11 changed the world around me, but the bombing of Pan Am 103 changed me from within.
It was difficult to fully grasp how much I would change back in 1989. I’d discussed Karen with my friends and roommates, but as I had with my family, I remained silent about just how deeply the bombing hurt. It felt inappropriate to do so given the sensibility of the age, when open displays of grief were often seen as self-indulgent weakness. Karen gradually faded from my conversations, but never from my thoughts. I kept a photo clipped from the D&C, on my desk.
Nazareth College suffered from an identity crisis in 1989; the small college with the beautiful cloistered campus boasted excellent Theater and English departments, a highly regarded Education department, and one of the better Speech Pathology programs in New York State. Yet our president’s zeal to cast off Nazareth’s reputation as a liberal arts college for women led to a series of controversial and divisive decisions—including a heavy emphasis on men’s sports and the elimination of a popular and lucrative series of theater productions.
I will never forget my best friend Karen. She will always be there for me and for everyone else. Karen, all I can say is I’m going to miss you, but all our memories — the ones I was lucky enough to share with you — will be with me forever. She was the best.
Friend, January 1989
The result was a student body fractured into a series of cliques, with the newly formed men’s lacrosse team and their fellow travelers dominating the social scene. In spite of resident population’s diminutive size, the segregation was such that we were remarkably isolated from each other, as was brutally evident in the opening weeks of the spring semester. Though we suffered nothing vaguely approaching the calamity that struck Syracuse University, Nazareth didn’t weather the holidays unscathed, either. You wouldn’t know it unless you paid close attention to the February 2, 1989 edition of The Gleaner, the first issue of the semester. On the front page, a feature article touted the benefits of Nazareth’s cliques while buried on page 3, a small column announced the death of Kristen Morley, a sophomore, on December 7, 1988. A memorial service was scheduled for January 25th—8 days before the issue’s publication date. A second notice, this time on page 11, gave February 5th as the date for a memorial service for Beth Williams. At least students would have a chance to attend her service, provided they saw the notice. There were no additional details regarding the lives or deaths of either student.
Somehow, the bombing of Pan Am 103 with its dozens of murdered college students and myriad local connections didn’t receive a single column inch of coverage. Truth be told, most students didn’t seem too concerned about the bombing. I broached the subject with a few acquaintances. One of them looked me in the eye and asked why I should care about anyone on the plane: “you didn’t know any of them. Why the hell is it any of your business.”
I’d heard similar lines involving myriad subjects before. The cloak of apathy lay thick on the campus in 1989.
February 6, 1989: Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.
Sixty five family members gathered together before the cameras and microphones of dozens of journalists to issue a general statement to the press. To date, the families had received hundreds of thousands of letters and cards from the general public, yet there had been little or no response from two of the major players in the investigation: the government and Pan Am. The silence was galling. Margaret Thatcher and a number of British leaders had visited Lockerbie and attended various memorial services, yet Reagan, Bush, Quayle, and other top U.S. officials were conspicuous in their absence at any of the U.S. services.
The greatest source of anger was the news that a warning issued to a number of government employees was never released to the general public. This, in concert with the FAA’s apparent unwillingness to mandate tougher security measures even after the bombing of Pan Am 103, motivated the group to call for the ouster of the Allen McArter, the FAA administrator.
It was a bold, even unprecedented move for the relatives, most of whom had little experience with law, politics, or advocacy. Yet their call to action marked a pivotal date in citizen activism. In spite of fierce opposition from Pan Am and indifference from the government, the relatives would soon exert a greater influence than anyone would have thought possible.
Five days later, Dozens of family members of victims gathered at Tom and Dorothy Coker’s home. They lost their twin sons, Jason and Eric, on Pan Am 103. Jason was a student at Syracuse. Eric had local connections; he was a student at the University of Rochester.
With most of the identified victims buried or about to be buried, the bereaved wanted answers. Many of them attended the press conference in New York a few days earlier. Paul Hudson, father of Melina, a 16-year-old exchange student whose body fell near Ella Ramsden’s house on Park Place, was trying to organize the families.
They and others gathered at the Crow’s Nest meeting room in Hasbrouck Heights on the 19th where they formed an advocacy group: Victims of Pan Am 103.
February 18, 1989. Nazareth College.
“The idea that there is existence after annihilation is all too foreign to me. Perhaps this is the most painful thought of all.”
Outside my room, students roamed the halls, eyes dulled by a mixture of alcohol and the boredom of repetition. Most of them seemed to know there’s no satisfaction in the weekend routine they’d adhered to since the opening days of their freshmen years, but they steadfastly refused to grow.
I wondered if they were really that much happier than I am at the moment, as thoughts of the nature of death and the possibility of immortality drew my attention back to the journal. It was hardly standard fare for a 21-year-old, but the thoughts had weighed heavily on my mind since Pan Am 103 and the news of Beth Williams and Kristen Morley’s deaths. Some of the best and the brightest students from a prestigious university, students who had much in common with me, became the victims of an unseen war merely by doing the things thousands had done before. I continued to struggle with thoughts of mortality and justice.
What a waste. So much talent, gone in minutes.
Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine an afterlife, yet I desperately wanted to believe that 270 lives didn’t flash out of existence on the night of December 21. The struggle between what I believed and what I wished to believe did nothing to ameliorate the sense of loss, which had by now sparked a series of nightmares.
There had to be something I could do for the Hunts, some small gesture I could make to ensure that part of Karen survived, even if only in memories. The fact that I hadn’t been able to think of something to date fueled my sense of helplessness and frustration.
Something finally came to mind the following month; I would visit Karen’s grave on April 21, 4 months to the day after she died. It was to be an act of commemoration—and closure. There was nothing ennobling about the grief that continued to gnaw at me, nothing comforting about the dreams of passengers speaking to me from trees. The continued sadness made me feel isolated and freakish—I often wondered how many others grieved for those they didn’t know. If any did, I would never know; many probably buried their emotions for the same reason I had.
April 3, 1989. Washington D.C. Lafayette Park.
The vigil started at 2pm, nearly 103 days to the minute after the bombing of Pan Am 103. Paul Hudson spoke briefly, then family members begin the sorrowful task of reading the names of the victims. The Cohens, the Monettis, and the Lowensteins join a dozen others in slowly reciting 270 names. Each represented not only a life lost, but a future sundered. People in the audience remembered the last time they looked at the faces of their loved ones. The average age of the victims was 27. Many on the plane lost their lives before they had a chance to experience life to its fullest.
Bert Ammerman concluded the vigil with a call to action. The newly formed Victims of Pan Am 103 was about to become a force to be reckoned with.
Page 3 of the program bore a simple, hopeful message: “Those we love never truly leave us . . . they live on in the kindness they showed, the comfort they shared and the love they brought into our lives.”
(AP). “An Apology for Mix-up.” Daily Messenger [Canandaigua] 8 Jan. 1989: 1a. Print.
(AP). “Hunts Await Return of Daughter’s Body.” Daily Messenger [Canandaigua] 9 Jan. 1989: 1a+. Print.
Cox, Matthew, and Tom Foster. Their Darkest Day: The Tragedy of Pan Am 103 and Its Legacy of Hope. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992. Print.
Foster, Tom, Stephanie Gibbs, Matthew Cox, Karen Nelis, Jonathan Salant, and Maurice Smith. “The Darkest Day: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.” The Post-Standard [Syracuse] 7 Apr. 1989: n. pag. Print.
Gibbs, Stephanie. “I Wanted to Add One More Thing . . .” The Post-Standard [Syracuse] 19 Jan. 1989, sec. A: 4. Print.
The Gleaner [Nazareth College] 2 Feb. 1989: n. pag. Print.
Hunt, Peggy, and Robert Hunt. Personal interview. 27 Dec. 2013.
Hyman, Jennifer. “500 Recall ‘light That Touched Many'” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 28 Dec. 1988: 1a+. Print.
Saltzman, Jonathan. “Hunt’s Body Is Located in Mass.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 9 Jan. 1989: 1a+. Print.
“Syracuse University Pan Am 103 Memorial Service.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 May 2013. Web.
Tomb, Diana. “Wrong Body given to Hunt’s Family.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 8 Jan. 1989: 1a+. Print.