Words create the stories that become history and become unforgettable. Even fiction portrays truth: good fiction is truth. Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.
What could they have accomplished? Theodora Cohen and Miriam Wolfe envisioned the birth of an experimental theater at Syracuse University. Glenn and Paula Bouckley looked forward to beginning their lives together in Upstate New York. Lawanda Thomas held her infant son Jonathan on her lap and thought of her family in Michigan. Multi-talented Kenneth Bissett awaited his return to Cornell. So many people, so much talent, so many narratives came together, and for 38 minutes they slipped through the skies as strangers and companions. Every one of them had dreams. Every one of them deserves to be remembered, commemorated, and celebrated. Every one of them was stripped of their potential in the sub-freezing troposphere above Lockerbie, Scotland.
I’ve chosen to focus on the life of one of the 270 people murdered on the night of December 21, 1988: Karen Lee Hunt, a junior at Syracuse majoring in English.
Many of Karen’s friends and roommates have gone on to achieve remarkable things—there seems to have been a convergence of talent and entrepreneurial spirit running through the young women who roomed in Day Hall in the late 1980s. It’s likely that Karen would have similarly gone on to make a name for herself. Perhaps she would have fulfilled her dream of writing for the National Geographic or another prestigious magazine. She might have become a mother; if she had, her children would likely be approaching college age themselves by now. If the possibilities are unclear, one thing is reasonably certain: she would have forged her chosen path with determination, conviction, and tenacity.
Her potential vanished in the roar of a sundered fuselage and the rush of thin arctic air 6 miles above Scotland. Yet, if the bombing of Pan Am 103 ended Karen Hunt’s life, it didn’t end her story. Her voice resonates in the memories, deeds, and aspirations of everyone she moved, directly and indirectly, simply because of who she was.
A dozen journalists wandered about the Wall of Remembrance on December 21, 2013, the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am 103. They were young—too young to remember the bombing. In a telling indication of just how much time has passed since the night of screams, flames, and kind eyes reflected through a television screen, most of the reporters milling around us were born in the years after the tragedy. One of the youngest asked a parent how she heard of the bombing. The woman shared her story of how she learned of the bombing through a radio report as she was commuting home. Concerned, she pulled into a gas station, where she used the pay phone to reach family and friends. As she finished her story, she looked at the reporter, smiled, and said, “We had no cell phones or computers back then. Nineteen eighty eight was like the stone age.”
The proliferation of advanced information technology in the 1990s changed everything—including the way we perceive history. The popularization of the World Wide Web in the mid 90s inadvertently created a fault line between eras. The internet satiates our insatiable thirst for instant information; unfortunately, it also distracts from meaningful events and stories that occurred years before we could access most of the sum of human knowledge on a smartphone.
Yet the act of pushing the bombing of Pan Am 103 into the periphery of memory predates the internet’s digitally-induced amnesia by a number of years. The government and Pan Am actively resisted calls for investigation and reform. Enjoying the waning days of a seemingly halcyon decade, much of the American public gradually turned their backs on the disaster—though many continued to support the families and friends of the victims in the ensuing years. Perhaps the distance to Lockerbie played a role as well; certainly the upheavals in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe, the images of the Loma Prieta earthquake, captured live during the 1989 World Series, and the prematurely optimistic sense that the Cold War was coming to an end diverted the public’s attention from the story of a doomed jet full of families, infants, business travelers, and college students.
If the digital frontier distracts us from our history, it can also preserve and disseminate images and voices from the past as well. Remembering Karen is my long belated attempt to ensure that Karen Lee Hunt and her fellow victims are remembered as vibrant, complex individuals, people with lives, thoughts and aspirations not unlike our own today, over 2 decades later.
People inevitably enter and leave our lives. Some are forgotten. Some are remembered vaguely. Some stay with us. A few, a very special few, change us in remarkable ways. Karen Lee Hunt was one of the latter. Somehow, in some unique way, she transformed the people around her. That power transcended mortality and distance to draw complete strangers into a beautifully intricate web of causality.
Notting Hill continued its path toward gentrification throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Many of the unique shops Karen and her classmates visited are gone, replaced by homes, flats, or chain stores. The Prince Albert remains open, however The Frog & Firkin changed hands several times after 1992 before succumbing to the wreckers in 2010.
Syracuse University opened its new London center in Faraday House in 2005; the center is located in the city, though many S.U. abroad students continue to live in Notting Hill.
Karen wasn’t the only victim with ties to the Rochester area. Thirty one year old Lorraine Buser Halsch, pregnant with her second child, also boarded Flight 103 in London, joining her father and brother on the plane. They never found her brother’s body. Two University of Rochester students, Katherine Hollister and Eric Coker, died as well. Jason, Eric’s twin brother and a student at Syracuse University was also among the dead.
The anklet visible on Karen’s leg in one of the photos from London later played a role in identifying her after her body was flown to Massachusetts.
It was returned to her family in 1989, along with a leather bracelet that can be seen in other images. Karen wears a blue and white striped shirt in a photo in Robyn’s slideshow, and holds a similar shirt in another shot.
The 1998-99 class of Remembrance Scholars created a quilt to commemorate the 35 students lost on Flight 103. Karen’s panel includes a pocket made from one of her shirts. It’s possibly from on of the shirts in the photos, a haunting story captured in cloth.
The pocket houses a tape of “Song For Karen.”
Amazingly, the Wedgewood teapot Karen bought for her mother survived the fall, albeit with a broken lid.
“Somewhere, My Friend,” Karen’s prescient poem, appears on her gravestone in Webster and on memorials in New Jersey and Lockerbie. Her lasting gift of words is often quoted at commemorative ceremonies.
Karen’s boyfriend painted a portrait of his lost love. He eventually gave it to the Hunts with a note that echoes the sentiments expressed by so many of those who knew her: “The feeling that Karen gave everyone will stay within us until our graves, but her beauty, as we perceived her, will change as the years progress. For the last year, I have been struggling to capture this beauty, but I realize now that it can never be portrayed on canvas because just as Karen was beautiful on the outside, her insides were far more beautiful.”
Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 splintered in 1989 as relatives clashed over how to address the legal and political handling of the bombing’s aftermath. Nonetheless, VPAF103 remains active to this day.
Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991. A federal court found the company guilty of willful misconduct in 1992 over the company’s record of lax security.
Libya eventually paid each victim’s family $10 million in compensation.
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of 270 counts of murder in 2001. He was granted a “compassionate release” for terminal prostate cancer in 2009. Doctors gave him 3 months to live. He was granted a hero’s welcome when he returned to Libya, and he died in a bed surrounded by family and friends in 2012. Rumors of a deal for oil surrounded the release. It was yet another in a long string of indignities suffered by victims’ families.
To date, he is the only individual convicted in the bombing.
Muammar Gaddafi, the man who ordered the bombing, was killed by his countrymen on October 20, 2011.
Syracuse University awards scholarships to 35 seniors every year, and the university stages commemorative events each October to ensure that the majority of students are on campus during the activities. The Wall of Remembrance is a hallmark of the campus.
The families of the victims dealt with their loses in different ways. Some have been open about their loses and ordeals. Others chose and continue to choose to mourn off of the public stage.
The wreckage of the “Clipper Maid of the Seas” lies in a scrapyard in England.
The Hunts continue to live in Webster.
In his introductory letter to the Hunt family, Richard Newbegin wrote, “I came, a complete stranger to the tragedy. I left, inexplicably, a part of it.” Like him, I have a similar sense of not merely witnessing the tragedy of Pan Am 103 in 1988, but of being drawn into the story. Richard embraced the powerful emotions brought forth by his experience in the Garden of Remembrance, molding them into “Song for Karen.” My journey toward a deeper understanding of the effect Karen’s death had on my life is a bit more convoluted.
Rather than embracing the sense of connection, I questioned and even resisted it. My experience at Karen’s graveside in 1989 was intended, in part, as a quest for closure, yet I returned to campus feeling more intertwined in the grand narrative than ever before. Three days later, I found the means to articulate the confusing emotions within. It would be right to say that her legacy sparked a personal renaissance that encompassed far more than the birth of my creative voice. It would be decades before I’d discover that Karen’s legacy was even deeper and more significant than I first realized.
With each passing anniversary, I thought the emotions would dwindle and fade, yet it would be years before the voices of Lockerbie grew softer. Emotions would resurface with a new intensity every Winter Solstice, or with each visit to Karen’s grave. I paid a final visit to Webster Union Cemetery during a winter break early in 1995. Nearly a year later, on December 21, 1995, I wrote the following: “I feel strangely at peace tonight, as if something has been lifted from my soul.” It seemed as if our two narratives had parted for the last time seven years after her death.
I never forgot Pan Am 103, Karen, or her legacy, though. There was always a sharp pang of emotion at 2:03 p.m. every December 21st, and I’d occasionally search the burgeoning internet for new information about the trial, the bombing, the victims, and Karen, but I did so with an ever increasing sense of being detached from those days.
It only took an 8 minute slideshow in 2013 to make me realize that the sentiments, emotions, and sense of connection with Pan Am 103 were merely dormant. A few dozen images set to “Song for Karen,” Richard Newbegin’s homage to Karen Hunt and his encounter with her words in Scotland many years ago elicited such powerful feelings as to defy the chasm of 25 years.
Shortly afterward, I found a direct connection to the legacy of the disaster in the form of a poem I had sent to Karen’s family, now digitized in a Victims of Pan Am 103 newsletter in the Syracuse University Archives. I felt that it was appropriate to send the poem to the family of the one who had inspired my poetry when I mailed it in April, 1990. There was a similar sense of reciprocity in seeing my words, unpolished as they were, on the computer screen.
And so it was that the concept for this site came into focus. In it’s original incarnation, this chapter was titled “Epilogue,” for I saw it as the concluding chapter of a new burst of creativity. The site was to chronicle my original reactions to Pan Am 103 and Karen’s death, the encounter at her grave the following April, the renewed sense of connection inspired by the slideshow and archival material in the spring and summer of 2013, and ultimately, conclude with a photographic essay chronicling my first visit to her grave since the early days of 1995. The epilogue would serve as the denouement to a story nearly 25 years in the making.
I should have known that the trip to Webster in August, 2013, and the subsequent launching of this website, then titled Roses for Karen, were actually preludes to a far more complex, moving, and ultimately meaningful journey, one that has no end in sight. Less than two months after I stood next to Karen’s grave, I was looking at her image, and those of her 34 peers, on posters in a study lounge at her beloved Syracuse University. I knew then that I was being drawn inexorably back into a dialogue that baffles me to this day, a grand, sad, yet moving meta-narrative of remembrance that looks forward by embracing the past.
This time, there was no questioning or resistance, no analysis or rationalization. I decided to accept what was happening, and in so doing, I was reminded of a conversation from 1988 where a mother and daughter came to a simple conclusion: what will be, will be.
The act of letting go brought me to understandings I never thought possible, and connections to the people and events of 1988 unthinkable just a few months ago. It’s been a wild, emotional ride with enough coincidences and twists to challenge even this longtime skeptic’s understanding of the nature of things. I look forward to seeing where this path leads this year, and beyond.
Thank you Karen, for the inspiration, for the opportunity to meet some wonderful people, for making me realize that we can look back while acting forward, and for bringing just a bit of spirituality back into my life. Thank you Karen, for changing my life. Twice.