The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.
Lois McMaster Bujold
Left to their own devices by a shockingly indifferent government, the families and friends who comprised Victims of Pan Am 103 would eventually wield an influence beyond anyone’s comprehension. The group became a template not only for legislative action, but also for managing, as much as possible, mass grief.
It’s well that they did so. The plight of the victims and their families was rapidly fading from public consciousness. Family members were often stunned to find increasingly vocal criticism of their grief, as if mourning could be constrained or quantified in finite time-frames, as if advocating for a murdered husband, wife or child constituted a breach of decorum.
It wasn’t enough that their loved ones were deprived of their lives. Now, they’ were to be erased from collective memory as well.
If there was a protocol for showing compassion to families grieving the loss of their murdered loved ones, the shameful treatment of the families and friends of the Pan Am 103 victims violated it in unimaginable ways.
Few however could imagine the resourcefulness, tenacity, and love exhibited by the families over the ensuing months and years. They would defy governmental indifference and collective apathy in unprecedented ways, carrying the voices of the loved and lost into the new millennium.
Over a year had passed since that awful night in 1988, but the images of flames, of a severed cockpit, of a gentle young woman on the television remained fresh, even raw, at times. The experience (encounter?) at Karen’s grave ignited a storm of creativity, and the waves of change sweeping over Europe provided enough fodder for a dozen poems over the summer. They were all embarrassingly bad, though I was sheltered from this realization by a creative energy that extended to my academics as well. If I left my junior year a bit sadder, I entered my senior year with a new-found confidence.
Karen’s photo continued to grace my desk; I thought of Lockerbie quite often that fall. It seemed like I was one of the few who remembered the chimneys silhouetted against the flames on a cold December evening. Her photo, a grainy, yellowing image cut from the newspaper, served as a reminder of the humanity lost on Pan Am 103. The soulful eyes almost beckoned me to write to the Hunts. Much to my shame, I hadn’t done so.
I’d given a great deal of thought as to what I’d say, but the thoughts that coalesced into poetry were fickle. I struggled to form the right sequence of words and thoughts, it was admittedly a difficult task to write a letter to a family I’d never met. Would it have been sufficient to say “I’m sorry for your loss” almost a year after Karen’s death? Likewise, sharing the depth and intensity of my emotional experiences and newfound inspiration seemed crass and inappropriate. How on earth could I convey my thoughts to them without sounding like I was, on some level, appropriating their grief.
How could I tell them that I, a complete stranger to Karen, keenly felt the pain of her depth? How could I say this to a family that knew the intensity of loss in a way that eclipsed comprehension. I wanted so desperately to help or support them in any way, but I was only too cognizant of the fact that a poorly worded letter sent with the best of intentions could sting. That fear stilled my typewriter.
As the first anniversary approached, Syracuse and the other cities and regions hardest hit by the bombing continued to mourn the dead. Families and friends of the victims called for justice. They’d achieved remarkable things in spite of obstructionism and our national urge to move on, keeping the tragedy in the news far longer than may had anticipated. Nonetheless, the protests in China and the dying gasps of Communism in Europe drew attention away from Scottish fields. Some family members encountered stiffening resistance to their pleas from the media, general public, and even some friends and family. Pan Am 103 was a tragedy that happened to other people’s families in a distant land. The worst act of terrorism against U.S. citizens to date was quickly fading from our screens and memories.
Had the public turned their attention to the investigation of the bombing of Pan Am 103, they might have been a bit more sympathetic toward the plights of the families, who had received little support from the government. If they couldn’t find it in their hearts to find compassion for the relatives of those so brutally murdered over Lockerbie, then perhaps their collective need for self-preservation would have compelled them to recoil in horror at the details unearthed over the past year.
Reports of a detailed threat and warning specifically identifying a Pan Am flight out of Frankfort (where Pan Am 103 originated as a feeder flight to Heathrow) surfaced almost immediately after the bombing. It was also evident that Pan Am’s policy of charging $5 per passenger as a surcharge for “enhanced security” was a sham. Pan Am’s screening was no better than most, and considerably worse than a few. Had someone examined an unaccompanied suitcase in Frankfort or Heathrow, Pan Am 103 might have been remembered as the flight that was almost bombed. Two hundred fifty nine tired passengers and crew would have flown into JFK after a lengthy delay. Eleven people in Lockerbie would greet the daylight on the morning of December 22. Though the “Helsinki” letter was later determined to be unconnected to the bombing, the detailed warning should have prompted more stringent security measures. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, followed by a West German sting that uncovered a clandestine bomb making ring, should have created an atmosphere of urgency for Pan Am’s vaunted security. “America’s airline” was a high-profile target, and Pan Am should have acted accordingly.
Obviously, the story played out very differently. In spite of the extra surcharge for enhanced security and an aggressive public relations campaign touting the company’s use of bomb-sniffing dogs and advanced technology, an unchecked bag made its way into Flight 103’s cargo hold at one of the most heavily traveled airports in the world.
It was a charade: the dogs in the ads were untrained animals rented for the ad, the scanners at the airport were obsolete, and the “crack” security at Heathrow consisted of unqualified workers.
Pan Am’s attempts to reach out to the families were equally inept. Families received letters from Pan Am Chairman Thomas P. Plaskett in February, nearly 2 months after the disaster. In the letter, Plaskett offered his condolences, provided a few updates about the investigation, reminded the families that they were entitled to “certain compensation as provided by international treaties,” and dismissed the warning as a hoax. The specificity and timing of the memo was, in his words, “a tragic coincidence.”
My parents had flown to the Netherlands in the summer of 1988; they flew to London last summer. They could have just as easily been the victims of “a tragic coincidence” as those on Pan Am 103.
My senior year had started auspiciously. I had a single room in a quiet dorm—for the first time in 4 years, I was all but assured to get my security deposit back—I was back on the swim team, and though I was leaning toward teaching, I finally had a chance to take Newspaper Writing.
I’d aspired to be a journalist when I entered Nazareth, and my current path didn’t diminish my interest in the field. My professor was a byproduct of the old school of journalist thought: tough, detached, and direct. I still recalled the woman at JFK, her screams and sobs broadcast to the world in a most public and grotesque exploitation of her grief, and she and I often clashed in heated debates over ethics and compassion following lectures, or in one case, an atrocious move entitled If It Bleeds, It leads.
I made it through the class with a B.
If Pan Am 103 eventually inspired me to take up creative writing, it marked the definitive end of any thoughts of pursuing journalism.
I put my disdain for “hard-hitting” journalism aside long enough to follow the bombing’s first anniversary. I’d planned on visiting Karen’s grave on the 21st, but foot of snow kept me away from Webster. That dark day still dominated my thoughts, and in a compassionate article that partially restored my faith in journalistic integrity, the Democrat and Chronicle described the plight of the Hunt family at the end of the first full year of their lives without Karen.
The introduction was brutal in its brevity:
A dusting of snow. A cold, clear night.
That’s when a horrible deja vu hits Bob Hunt.
‘It slaps me in the face. What a waste.’
A 20-year-old, swan-necked beauty who loved to write poetry died in the bombing . . .
Later, Karen’s father expressed a degree of frustration that seemed disconcertingly familiar:
“Let’s get back to the almighty dollar. What’s more important? Making millions and billions of dollars? Or a few hundred American Lives?
We have got to get to the bottom of why these poor kids were sacrificed.”
I’d seen too many good causes encounter resistance or suppression in the face of numbers, privilege, or cash. For the first time, I could legitimately understand something of the frustration the Hunts were feeling, albeit in a far different way.
Then I saw Karen’s words in the form of a poem:
Something has happened
To keep us apart
But always and forever
You’re in my heart
From now till forever
I’ll meet you again
And we’ll be together.
It was a simple, clean verse, eerie in its prescience. The words would soon become familiar to many of the families, friends, and strangers touched by the tragedy in Lockerbie. Karen’s voice would soon pierce death’s veil.
I quickly scrawled a poem of my own in response to hers, and spent the night in tears.
February 21, 1990. Nazareth College.
College campuses of the late 1980s were often staid places compared to the often contentious scenes they are today. We benefited from the social and educational changes of the 1960s and 70s, yet the after effects of those decades coupled with the apparent stability and prosperity of the Reagan years produced a sense of malaise among many student populations. The sentiment of the day was characterized by and odd fusion of conformity and individualism that seemed to express itself in gaudy fashions the merged 70s punk with 50s prep.
If you have a friend, lover, son or daughter, mother or father, sister, brother, husband or wife who ventures off American soil, say a tender goodbye to them the next time they leave.
Georgia Nucci, 1990
When The Gleaner wasn’t publishing articles extolling the virtues of cliques, it was frequently laced with editorials expressing the editors’ frustration with our quiescent student population. This isn’t to say that there weren’t people willing to pursue worthy causes. A number of us formed a loosely-affiliated coalition of pseudo activists who were actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, Amnesty International, or one of the many local controversies that sprung up on campus. Though most of us active in these causes rejected what we perceived to be the selfish ethos of the age, the individualism of the times quietly shaped us as well. We rarely formed movements, preferring to implement more direct forms of activism which, in my case, often meant frequent visits to the office of our college president. Though we might have lacked strength in numbers, the individualism that kept us from coalescing into more effective groups also prevented us from succumbing to the peculiarly dogmatic and authoritarian ideologies that plague many student movements today—though like contemporary students, we were often blinded by youthful sanctimony.
The clash of idealism and apathy came to a head during my final semester at Nazareth. A number of us formed a chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving the previous fall. Though our activities garnered media attention and positive coverage in the college’s literature, SADD’s goals clashed with an apolitical campus culture that had yet to embrace the stigma now attached to drinking and driving. The result was a series of skirmishes, surveys, and editorials justifying the group’s purpose to a population that appeared to view us as the collective embodiment of Carrie Nation’s malevolent spirit. The group was already faltering in the opening weeks of the second semester.
In retrospect, I can say that our tactics were often heavy-handed. Staged crashes, bloody prom dresses, and black shirts emblazoned with huge letters reading “DOA” played well on television, but not to the hearts and minds of our peers.
Nor were we the only ones in the region to encounter a backlash; students at another local university created a shanty town to protest apartheid, only to see the flimsy shelters destroyed by rampaging peers who saw the protest as an attack on Rochester’s largest employers.
Such was the mindset of the time. Students who regularly ignored politics, rapes, and racism could become remarkably animated when an organization posed a threat, real or imagined, to their lifestyles.
The mentality had frustrated me for years, but I’d reached a breaking point that February, particularly after a series of arguments covering a broad range of contemporary issues. As illustrated in the examples above, too many people believed that they had a right to avoid politics; what’s more, many, too many, believed that others shouldn’t stir the pot either.
This was the environment that would ultimately move me to make a simple gesture that would resonate 23 years later.
February 23, 1990. Syracuse Post Standard.
Georgia Nucci’s son, Christopher Jones, was scheduled to work in a bookstore on December 22. They found him reposed in a field near Lockerbie shortly before his shift was to start.
Christopher was the mischievous young man who followed his girlfriend, Erica Elefant, to London in the fall of 1988. His flat became a gathering place for many of the DIPA students who looked forward to his monthly parties.
Erica opted to spend more time in Europe in spite of his attempts to entice her aboard the “party flight.” Erica would learn of his death while waiting for a ferry.
Like many family members, Georgia was horrified to discover that apathy was a wall extending far beyond the then comparatively apolitical halls of academia. In spite of the implications for travelers, of the sheer inhumanity of the bombing, and of the fact that the downing of Pan Am 103 was the worst act of terrorism committed against American citizens to date, the government, the press, and the public were often shockingly silent about the attack—or worse, resistant to activism. A number of my classmates articulated a sentiment shared by many in the general public—that these families should “move on,”—as if the lives of those lost were part of a geography easily departed.
Significantly, none of the people who say these things to me knew Karen or any of the other victims.
This is not to say that there hadn’t been acts of compassion; collectively, the families received hundreds of thousands of letters of sympathy and support, though the bulk of these were mailed in the weeks and months immediately following the Lockerbie bombing. Yet public awareness and sympathy were rapidly waning.
Frustrated, Georgia wrote an Op-Ed piece to the Syracuse Post Standard. The letter appeared in the Sunday, February 23 edition:
Demand Answers on Flight 103
My son was murdered. Two hundred-sixty-nine others were murdered along with him. All but 11 of these were blown out of the sky, falling six miles to their deaths over the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.
Since that day I have dedicated my efforts to finding out how and why this could have happened. Allegations have sprung up that implicate my own government even though the event was ostensibly carried out by Middle Eastern terrorists.
What happened to my son could happen to any other American’s family member. Yet even the members of my own family ask why I pursue the answers to my questions. I’m even asked it it’s worth my while! The failure of the American people to express even the slightest outrage and demand answers for this heinous act is an obscenity to me.
How in God’s name could anyone expect a mother to have her son so cruelly murdered and then turn her back on the event. Are we all so expendable, like fast-food containers?
When the Iranian Airbus was downed by the USS Vincennes in July 1988, hundreds of Iranian citizens demonstrated in the streets demanding vindication. When my son and his fellow passengers were blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, I was met with a wall of silence.
Where is the outrage? Why is this alright? Why are my fellow Americans not supportive of my quest for answers? Where is the moral fiber, the sense of unity, the common purpose that normally marks a nation?
I have a message to the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives of America: If you allow this to happen to these citizens without investigation, without question, without accountability, you are giving permission for it to happen to you.
Have you never asked why there is no end to this investigation? Don’t you wonder why the allegations of CIA complicity have never been countered? Have you even noticed the columns stating that Bush and Thatcher struck a deal to suppress the information about the bombing?
If you don’t care, if you don’t question, if you don’t demand answers of your elected officials, then you have no right to expect anything other than the same treatment for your loved ones. If we leave the question unanswered, we acknowledge the right of the government to determine the value of lives.
If you have a friend, lover, son or daughter, mother or father, sister, brother, husband or wife who ventures off American soil, say a tender goodbye to them the next time they leave. And if it happens that they, or parts of them, are returned to you in a body bag, to an unheated, filthy warehouse on a back lot of Kennedy Airport instead of the glitzy terminal, pick up the “freight,” go home and don’t complain. Unless you question the events surrounding the downing of Pan Am Flight 103, you will have lost that right.
As Americans we claim a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” My son, and the other Americans with him, lost that right. If I, and the other family members who lost their loved ones on Pan Am 103, have to fight for their rights alone, we will all lose them. It may be that we already have. Certainly, the Americans on Flight 103 have lost those rights forever.
Democracy is not a self-perpetuating system. It must be maintained at least as carefully as, if not better than, your new car, or your waistline, or your stock portfolio. If any one American’s liberties can be so casually discarded, well, then, it can happen to the rest of us with equal impunity.
Demand to know the answers. Insist on accountability. Question authority. You are the government. They work for you. We all voted these people in office. Certainly, we all pay their wages. Write a letter. Pick up the phone. Defend your liberties—and my son’s.
With a few revisions, the letter could have served as a condemnation of the public’s apathy regarding any one of a number of pressing social and political issues.
I couldn’t directly relate to the anguish of friends and relatives. Certainly, I’d felt grief, even despair, more intensely than I ever have before, but I grieved behind a veil of ignorance that partially sheltered me from the full effect of losing a friend on Pan Am 103. Had I known people on the plane, the effect could well have been crippling.
There was something I could relate to, though: the frustration of dealing with aggressively apathetic individuals. It was a frustration that, in my case, predated Pan Am 103—and now included it.
To date, I’d been deeply moved by a tragic narrative, yet my path had been parallel rather than convergent. The nights following the disaster saw me drawn toward the story, yet my immediate reaction to Karen’s death was intensely personal. It felt like I’d lost my best friend.
The experience beside her grave the following April that gave me a greater sense of the true nature of Karen’s death also made me aware of the political aspects of the bombing. Karen and her fellow passengers were murdered, victims of a vast, complex, and poorly understood conflict between nations.
Nevertheless, I’d been hesitant to act lest I inadvertently hurt or offend the family I wanted so desperately to help and support. In a striking coincidence, my frustration with apathetic peers reached a breaking point just as Georgia Nucci’s letter appeared in the Post Standard. I was about to be drawn into a larger story in a way that would have unforeseen repercussions on my life a quarter of a century later.
March 3, 1990. Webster Union Cemetery.
A thin later of ice crusted the snow—it was a cold, unpleasant day in Webster. The weather captured my mood.
Each footstep seemed to raised shards of ice that rubbed painfully against my thin socks. I ignored the ice and pressed on to Karen’s grave.
The cemetery was starkly beautiful. The wind rattled tree branches and sighed through evergreens. I closed my eyes and recited the phrases that motivated today’s visit: “It’s none of your business.” “What gives you the right . . .” “It doesn’t affect me.” “Why do you care.” “Why should I?”
And finally, “who was she to you?” Most of the phrases were interchangeable. The last was specific to one person, one issue.
I was here to write a poem about the aftermath Karen Hunt’s murder. It wasn’t meant to be elegiac, sophisticated, or skilled (not that I was capable of producing works with that level of sophistication then anyway). I wanted readers to see the aftermath of terrorism, to feel the sense of anguish over a life cut short . . . to feel something. The underlying sense of anger and frustration was partially motivated by my recent experiences with the student body; however most of the emotions that tore through me that moment centered around Karen and her family.
The words would come easily enough, and I’d have plenty of time for revisions in the warmth of Founder’s Hall.
Silvered by the Upstate winter, Karen’s cross sat, unique and dignified, in a field of stones. The wind furled the paper in the notebook. Closing my eyes, I let the scene take me.
The anger I felt 11 months ago returned in a more tempered form, and I channeled it onto paper. The resulting poem was overwrought, angry, and gruesome in its initial form. It suffered from my lack of experience, but also raw emotionalism of the comparatively recent tragedy of Pan Am 103. Like so many overtly political works, it captured a mood that was appropriate to a specific time and event. Time would swiftly render it an artifact that would be horribly inappropriate within a matter of years, yet none of this mattered to me as I wrote next to Karen Hunt’s grave.
The poem finally came together that evening.
One grave I seek in particular,
a recently dug sepulcher marked only
with a simple handmade cross
hosting the silent secrets of a crime
committed half a world away.
Below my feet, a casket contains the ruins and relics
of a life that spanned but twenty-one years.
A friend of friends, a beautiful young poet,
killed by a stranger’s hatred—
and a government’s indifference.
Perishing with two hundred and fifty-eight companions,
she fell from her chariot in the sky
to lie twisted and bleeding in a Scottish town,
leaving a stunned world to ask why,
and a hapless Webster family to pick up pieces of a broken life.
While families such as hers mourned their losses,
others turned away from their pain,
thanking inflated pocketbooks and superior status,
purchasing life from the wealth and prestige
that delivered them from the inferno.
Over a year has passed since that cold December night.
Cold-hearted senators waste time in needless debate.
New homes rise on healed soil.
Families are chided for holding on to shattered memories.
Two hundred and fifty-nine bodies lie cold in lonely graves.
Perhaps those who seem indifferent to the pain
of those who lost their loved ones in the cold Scottish night
would feel differently if it were their sons and daughters
lying forever still and silent in a distant back yard
. . . In a place called Lockerbie.
The poem was bound for Verity, Nazareth’s creative writing magazine. I titled it “Crime of Apathy.”
It never occurred to me that the family of the one who inspired me to take up poetry might be interested in seeing it.
March, 1990: Victims of Pan Am 103 Newsletter.
Georgia Nucci’s letter appeared on the second page of VPAF’s newsletter with an acknowledgement that, “the public awareness and attention to our situation is diminishing in spite of the fact that very serious issues remain to be resolved.” Nucci’s Op-Ed piece generated a considerable amount of public support, and the editors encourage family members, “to either place a copy of this letter in your own newspaper or adapt it to your own circumstances and sign your own name . . . For those of you who just can’t seem to find your own words . . . here they are, feel free to use them.”
April 16, 1990. Webster Union Cemetery.
Peggy, Robyn, and Robert peered out of the photo. Peggy and Robert wore grave expressions; Robyn, who appeared to fight back the tears, clutched a picture of Karen. The image accompanied an Op-Ed piece titled “Why Can’t the Government Tell me Who Murdered My Daughter.” The sentiments, the sense of frustration with the government, the condemnation of the public’s apathy all resonated with me. It was the same anger that motivated me to write the poem next to their daughter’s grave last month.
It’s was one hell of a coincidence that I had a final draft of the poem virtually ready for the typewriter.
There couldn’t have been a clearer call to action. Sixteen months of passivity melted away. The poem, accompanied by a brief letter of support, was in the mail the next day.
It only seemed fitting that I should share a poem with Karen’s family, though in my sudden zeal, I didn’t give much thought to the work’s grim tone or graphic imagery. It was a strange oversight given my previous reluctance to contact them. In a more circumspect mood, I would never have sent the envelope to them.
It would be many years before I learn about the remarkable string of coincidences that finally motivated me to contact the Hunts, and of how a letter and a poem, composed with a few days of each other, would lead me back to Karen and her family decades later.
The Op-Ed letter that appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle was based on Georgia Nucci’s work, “Demand Answers on Flight 103,” which made its way to the Hunts through the VPAF Newsletter. I was unaware of the letter’s provenance, and it wouldn’t matter to me anyway. I’d finally attempted to contact the family of the person who had inspired me to a remarkable extent. It was a small gesture—even then, I wished I could have sent something better, but there was something cathartic about the act of mailing the poem, as I could partially assuage some of my guilt for not acting sooner.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Karen’s grave that day, but for some reason I felt compelled to be there. It was yet another cold day near the shore of Lake Ontario. Several visitors wandered the grounds and I spent a fair amount of time in the relative warmth of the car with my journal. I felt self-conscious about being seen when I was in such a pensive mood.
My undergraduate career would end to a close in less than a month, and although Honeoye was less than 35 miles away, I knew my visits will be far less frequent in the coming months and years. Already, I had the sense that if I had been drawn into something vast and mysterious, my minor role was finally coming to an end.
Later that year, Bob Hunt’s letter inspired local singer and songwriter Bonnie Abrams to release a single titled “Only Americans”:
Where oh where is my baby?
Can you tell me land of the brave and free?
Shot out of the sky over Lockerbie.
Is there no one asking why but me?
They were only Americans, why bother.
It’s not like a resource we might lose.
It’s sad for the mothers and the fathers,
And we who hold self-evident these truths.
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.
Hedglon, Mary. “Grief, Rage at Government Remain for Karen Hunt’s Family.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 17 Dec. 1989: n. pag. Print.
Hunt, Robert. “Why Can’t the Government Tell Us Who Killed My Daughter.” Editorial. Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 15 Apr. 1990: n. pag. Print.
Nucci, Georgia. “Demand Answers on Flight 103.” Editorial. Post-Standard 23 Feb. 1990: n. pag. Print.