Webster, New York.
The anticipation made the long hours in school even more interminable for Robyn Hunt. Much had happened since Karen left for London on a Tuesday afternoon in September on what had been Robyn’s first day of eight grade. Tonight, Robyn would regale her older sister with nearly half a school year’s worth of stories as the Hunts drove the exhausted young woman back from Rochester International Airport, where she was scheduled to arrive at 11:30pm. The sight of Karen entering the terminal would finally mark an end to the long months of separation, and the sisters would have nearly a month together. They hadn’t spent that much time together since Karen’s last Christmas break. School, jobs, and the semester in London had kept the sisters apart longer than ever before. Next summer would likely be the last Karen would spend in Webster. But for now, Robyn and Karen would finally have more than a few days together.
The tape Karen recorded on the evening before she departed for London was tucked away in Robyn’s room. Her protests halted Karen’s narrative several times that night. Robyn feared that the sound of Karen’s voice, imprinted on the slender strip of magnetic tape, would fuel her loneliness. Frustrated by Karen’s stubborn refusal to stop the recording, Robyn blurted out, “what if your plane crashes?” It was a remark born of the heightened emotions of the moment. Karen ignored the comment and continued recording, her antics eventually eliciting laughter from the teen.
The 13 year-old was a few hours away from hearing Karen’s voice again. If it was the longest night of the year, it would also be the happiest.
The house was empty and dim in the encroaching twilight when she arrived home after school. Her mother was working at Xerox, while her father, away on a business trip, had a flight scheduled to land later that afternoon. Mark, Karen’s boyfriend, was still in Syracuse. He would join the three of them at Rochester International Airport tonight to welcome the exhausted S.U. student home.
Robyn’s friends were fond of Karen, and many of them looked forward to seeing her over the upcoming break. They knew her flight would arrive that evening, and it was this fact that motivated a concerned friend to call Robyn with the news that a plane bound for New York had crashed in Scotland. Incredulous, Robyn turned on CNN. Her incredulity gave way to confusion, then concern as she saw footage of burning rooftops in the darkness. It was around 4:30; her father’s flight had yet to land, and her mother wouldn’t be home for another hour. Uncertain as to what to do, Robyn called Peggy at work.
Peggy did her best to allay her youngest daughter’s concerns, yet the tone of Robyn’s voice sparked fear in her mind. There were dozens of flights aloft at the moment, and Karen’s plane should have been well over the Atlantic at the moment, but Peggy continued to worry after she ended the call with Robyn. A coworker brought in a radio; as Peggy and her coworkers listened to the broadcast in silence, Peggy felt her disbelief shift to fear. Unable to constrain her worries, she left work early.
The networks continued to churn out information as Peggy arrived home. By now, the networks had identified the downed plane as a Pan Am flight from Frankfort to New York by way of Heathrow airport. The flight number was 103.
Peggy and Robyn sorted through Karen’s flight information, then tried to contact Pan Am using the phone number on the news report. Pan Am’s lines were overwhelmed, but mother and daughter continued to call in a desperate quest for answers. Then, Robyn got through.
“What flight was Karen Lee Hunt booked on?” The representative gave a terse answer. “What did they say?” Robyn looked gravely at her mother and slowly repeated what she just heard: “Flight One. Oh. Three.”
Robert Hunt arrived in Rochester to the sound of his name pealing through the PA system. Peggy’s message was as chilling as it was terse: “Hurry up and get home. I think Karen’s plane has crashed.”
Tears streaked Robyn’s face as she climbed the stairs to her room. Once a link to her sister, the tape Karen had recorded on the evening of September 5 had become a haunting reminder of Karen’s death.
The Hunts had unwillingly joined hundreds of others in a complex and tragic tableau. Each family struggled to gather information, to process the possible loss of a loved one in an internationally publicized disaster, and to deal with the inevitable questions from the press. Some, like the families at JFK, had little choice in the matter. Their grief and shock played out on the most public of stages. Others locked themselves away from the world entirely.
Hours passed; around 9:30 that evening as the details of the crash were still flowing in, the Hunts gathered as a family to discuss the next course of action. In spite of their shock and grief, in spite of the natural urge to withdraw into the protection of their home, they made a heart-wrenching decision. Karen had dreamed of being a journalist for years. She would have covered an event of this magnitude as a reporter. As difficult as it was, the family decided to open up to the press about the possible loss of their sister and daughter. Collectively, they appointed Robert, an executive at Xerox, as the family’s spokesperson. Karen’s father reached out to the press on the worst night of his life.
As Robert spoke with reporters from the Democrat & Chronicle over the phone, journalists from several of the local television stations showed up at the house to pick up pictures of Karen. The Hunts gave them her high school yearbook photo.
Painful as it was, Robert Hunt returned to conclude the interview. He summed up the family’s decision to speak to the press on the worst eve of their lives in words that would soon resonate with me: “This is news . . . This is something Karen would have been doing . . . And it’s important for people to know about her, too.”
Syracuse, New York.
Mark and Karen met as freshmen in Day Hall and began dating shortly afterward. Though they lived hours apart, they’d become adept at navigating the intricacies of long-distance relationships over the past two summers and throughout Karen’s semester in London. Together for over 2 years, they’d developed a deep friendship that eased them through months of separation, but both were looking forward to the moment when Karen steps off the feeder flight in Rochester at 11:30.
The end of this term was especially grueling for the junior. He and Karen stayed in touch through recordings, letters—which Mark would elaborately illustrate, and phone calls that could last into the early morning hours. The latest phone bill had been over $300, and Mark spent several sleepless nights illustrating projects and reports for classmates who paid him what they could for his talents so he could cover the bill. He did his best to balance those projects with his own work and the increasingly lengthy practices in the gym; the gymnastics season was less than a month away.
A glance in the mirror revealed a ghastly pallor, the consequence of the grueling routine of the past few days. This was not the image he wanted Karen to see when she arrived that night, so he spent part of the afternoon on a tanning bed in a local mall. He bought a dozen red roses for Karen while he was out.
He was in the tanning bed when a local radio station broke the news that a flight originating in Frankfurt has crashed in Scotland. The plane was scheduled to land in New York at 9:30—the same time Karen’s flight was scheduled to arrive. It didn’t click at first, though he grew increasingly concerned as the afternoon progressed. His roommate gave him the news that the plane that went down had indeed been Karen’s. A few calls confirmed the worst. Dozens of friends came to check on him through the night. Mark left for Albany the next morning.
Word of the crash began to filter through campus throughout the afternoon as students tuned in to local radio and television coverage. A reporter from a local television station called Pan Am to ask for a list of the Syracuse Students on the plane. Inexplicably, a representative provided the station with the list of students scheduled to be on the flight hours before Peggy and Robyn Hunt and hundreds of other family members had confirmation.
The names silently glided up the television screens during the 6pm broadcast:
There would be 35 in all.
Dozens of residents scoured the campus searching for any scrap of news about their friends. A newspaper reporter told a young man, a mutual friend of Karen Hunt and Alexia Tsaris, of their presence on an unofficial list of passengers. The student closed his eyes in anguish and, in hushed tones, begged for their safe return: “Come on Karen. Come on Lexie.”
Stunned and grieving students worked their way to Hendricks Chapel for a hastily organized memorial service as reporters scoured the campus in search of interviews. One particularly aggressive journalist intruded on a pair of grieving students in the chapel. Disgusted, Joan Deppa, a professor at the Newhouse School, drove him away.
At the Pi Beta Phi house, young women shifted their focus away from final exams and the Christmas break as a horrifying realization set in: 3 of their members, Alexia Tsairis, Julianne Kelly, and Karen Hunt were on the flight. The 3 women were supposed to move into the sorority’s house on Walnut Place in the spring. As word of their deaths reached the media, the mourning sorority sisters found themselves besieged by the press. Ignoring their pleas for privacy, one reporter peered into the house through a front window.
These and similar incidents would shape discussions of journalistic ethics for years to come in classrooms at Syracuse.
Thousands of students gathered in the Carrier Dome to watch Syracuse play Western Michigan at 8, 6 hours after Pan Am 103 broke apart over Scotland. Syracuse won the game, but it was the hollowest of victories. The university’s decision to host the game on the eve of its worst tragedy was controversial from the outset.
Notting Hill Gate, London.
Syracuse University’s London faculty had just gathered for their customary end of term soiree in a pub at Notting Hill Gate when the news breaks on the televisions. They quickly moved to the S.U. center at 24 Kensington Court Garden, where the staff was already inundated with calls from the press and anxious families. In spite of their initial reluctance to bond with their professors, many of the students became attached to their teachers; instructors and students alike often came to see each other as members of a larger family. Most of the professors had seen their students just a few days ago. On December 21, 1988, that family was torn apart. A few tried to locate stragglers, while others pictured the faces of those they’ve taught this term. Patricia Utermohlen thought of Miriam Luby Wolfe’s boundless enthusiasm and Karen Hunt following her lectures with her huge eyes.
Honeoye, New York. 4:30 P.M.
I moved into O’Connor I on my 21st birthday, a sodden day that foreshadowed a difficult term. More than ever before, I looked forward to spending several weeks at home with my parents, the company of a few good books, and the solitude of my room.
It wasn’t to be. While I was in high school, my parents were actively involved in student exchange programs. These connections ultimately dashed my hopes for quietude when we became unwilling hosts to Hans, a Swedish student whose antics had led to his being evicted from his last placement.. Never before had I craved so much time alone, but the sight of Han’s bed next to mine scuppered my hopes. He would be my roommate for the next 3 weeks, until we could find him a new placement—or he was unceremoniously deposited at Rochester International for an early flight home.
I’d taken to sitting in front of the television when he came home from school. I’d mastered the fine art of seeing daytime programming as white noise, and Hans would generally leave me alone when he saw me seated on the sofa seemingly lost in a show. Were it not for the events that unfolded on that tragic day in 1988, I would have all but forgotten Hans. Were it not for Hans’s brief stay in my bedroom, I would likely remember the tragedy of Pan Am 103 very differently that I do today. Such is the Interconnectedness of causality that even the smallest of changes can produce the most profound outcome.
Wednesday, December 21, 1988 was almost entirely forgettable except for its unseasonable warmth. Ten days ago, I stood mesmerized outside Nazareth’s Art Center in several inches of snow as the air itself seemed to crystallize, freeing light itself. Today, the warm air left no room for such a display. The Honeoye Valley, starkly beautiful in the snow, rose gray and bare to the south, while fields of mud stretched to Honeoye Creek before the house.
I had migrated to my usual spot on the sofa before the bus dropped Hans off. The light faded until, by 4:30, darkness had all but enshrouded the muted colors of the landscape. I was lost in thought before the television when a news bulletin wrenched me back to reality. A plane, a Pan Am 747, had gone down in Scotland. Preliminary reports suggested that a number of students from Syracuse University might have been on board. The last detail unnerved me. My friend Kym, our class valedictorian, had matriculated at Syracuse in the fall of ’86. The chances of her being on the flight were slim, but a creeping sense of concern began to manifest itself. Our class scattered to the wind after graduation, and I hadn’t spoken to Kym since graduation day, but Honeoye was small community and my mother followed the fortunes of many of my classmates. I caught her for a moment as she walked toward the kitchen: “Is Kym still at Syracuse?” “No, she transferred to Geneseo last year. Why?” “Nothing, just thinking about her.”
Thoughts ricocheted about: “How many were on board? Who were they? Did I know any of them?” And the last—”So close to Christmas.”
Two hours later, ABC News broadcast the sounds and images of a woman collapsed on the floor at JFK. The microphones projected her screams to the world: “My baby!” I’d followed crash coverage before, felt sympathy for victims and families, and even been near the Air Florida Crash site in Washington D.C. a few weeks after the disaster in 1982. Somehow, this seemed different, closer, more ominous, than anything I’d felt before.
There were dozens of S.U. students on board. Though I didn’t know any of them personally, my sense of anxiety began to build again. There was no grand fraternity or sorority of college students nationwide, but it was only natural for us to feel a connection with fellow students. Majors, interests, and graduating classes formed a powerful social currency that cemented many of us together—these connections were powerful enough to transcend institutional loyalties. I was unaware of just how strong such ties were as I waited anxiously for the latest updates, but that would soon change in ways that defied explanation.
Broadcasts showed a hellscape of chimneys silhouetted against flames. Debris, enshrouded by darkness, covered the streets and gardens of a small town in Scotland. At this moment, hundreds of families were watching the same coverage anxiously while simultaneously hoping for a phone call from a loved one—or dreading a call from Pan Am or the State Department confirming their worst fears. Everyone hoped and prayed for miracles, but for hundreds, Christmas would never be the same. I had no comprehension of the fact that in a matter of hours, the same will be true for me.
Karen Hunt during her senior year at R.L. Thomas High School. Photo Credit: Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives at Syracuse University: The Karen Lee Hunt Family Papers.
So many of these passengers were around my age, and if I didn’t know anyone directly, there was the uncomfortable certainty that if someone from the area was on the plane, some of my friends might have known her or him. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep that thought from resurfacing as the tragedy played out through the 19″ screen. It was after 9 when a WOKR newswoman’s grave voice announced a local connection to the tragedy as the image of a young woman filled the screen. Like the screams from JFK, the photo etched itself indelibly into my mind’s eye: blue shirt, white sweater, shy smile. Yet these details were eclipsed by a pair of enormous, soulful brown eyes that seemed to peer through me. I shifted uncomfortably as a pang of sadness pulsed through me, then diminished just a bit. She looked to be about my age, and as I hoped she wasn’t on the plane, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of my friend knew her.
There was portent, no foreshadowing, no harbinger of what was about to happen to me. My perception of the world was about to be rent asunder, and it all started here in our living room, even as the photo of the young woman faded from the screen.
It was during the 11 o’clock news that I learned the young woman’s identity: Karen Hunt, a Syracuse University student from Webster. I had a number of friends from Webster who likely knew her. What were they going through tonight? What were the Hunts going through? For how many families would Christmas be forever tainted with the bleakness of this memory?
Nightline began with the haunting sound of a child’s voice recounting the evening fire rained from the sky. The coverage added more details, but given the darkness and the chaotic crash site, few hints as to what might have happened.
December 22, 1988. Honeoye.
Karen Hunt’s image from the Democrat & Chronicle, December 22, 1988. This was how I saw her for 25 years.
The Democrat and Chronicle carried Karen’s photo on the front page with the headline, “Webster Family Waits For Call.” “Did she make it?” “No.” My father’s reply confirmed what I’d known last night. The Hunts were now part of a tragic circle of grieving families. Christmas would always fall under the shadow of the sister and daughter who never made it home.
Karen’s image was frozen next to a far more somber headline in the Times Union: “We have to be strong . . . for our other daughter.” Though obviously constrained by the format and swirling confusion of a devastating and recent event, both articles provided a wealth of information on the young woman who seemed to stare into me last night. While I wallowed through my sophomore year, she flew to Chicago to interview magazine editors for a class project. She was bright, ambitious, and strikingly attractive(she resembled a friend from high school in that regard), and I felt myself awed by her accomplishments.
However we had so much in common as well, our majors, our interest in journalism, though I was leaning toward education by then, and our love for poetry. I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a connection with her. I suspected that we would have crossed paths many times had she attended Nazareth instead of Syracuse.
Though we would debate passionately, my family was never especially emotive. This is not to say that we were cold; rather, we kept an emotional distance that others perceived as detachment, as if we’d armored ourselves against the pangs of loss. I’d weathered enough tragedies to believe that I was perhaps more resilient than most around me.
Yet as I read the details Robert Hunt shared with the papers, the tragedy of Pan Am 103 was already seeping through the chinks in my emotional armor. A series of disparate yet intertwined images, details, and facts were at work. The absence of any element would have not have diminished the tragedy of Karen’s death, but it would have diminished the effect it would have on my life.
The erosion was gradual and insidious. It began with thought that started to insinuate itself the previous night. What if I’d gone to Syracuse instead of Nazareth? How many friends would I have lost on that plane? Was it possible that, had I made a different choice 3 years ago, I might have been in London as well? Or even on the doomed flight. It could have been me. What did they go through? What are their families going through?
It could have been me. I didn’t have the unsettling feeling of relief blended with guilt someone might have if they missed the flight or changed their plans at the last-minute. This wasn’t in any sense a near miss; rather, it was a suggestion, a thought, a gradual recognition that no amount of talent, intelligence or beauty can spare one from the capriciousness of fate.
It was the crossing of a fault line that would soon demarcate my life, the closing act of one part of my youth.
I was shocked by the Challenger disaster. The sight of the World Trade Center crumbling to dust in 2001 dealt a blow akin to a punch to the stomach. I’d lost far too many peers to accidents, suicide, or cancer. Each tragedy or loss was a hammer blow that staggered me, yet my well-honed defenses usually shielded me, and I always seem to be able to regain my composure rather quickly.
This was different. Slowly, imperceptibly, tendrils of thought and emotion took root and begin to pierce my subconsciousness. The story was intricate and complex with a series of subtle but growing peaks rather than any one grand climax. I unknowingly skimmed off of one of those peaks last night when I saw Karen’s photo. I’d feel the collision tonight.
December 23, 1988. Honeoye. 2:00AM.
It was two in the morning, December 23rd, 1988—a typical winter’s night in Honeoye. A hint of a glow streamed into the room from the big mercury-vapor light on the barn. The room was cold and silent. A dusting of snow-covered the ground. Hans slept quietly next to me.
A young woman I never knew was dead in Scotland.
I lay awake, thinking about the sequence of events over the past 48 hours. Two days ago, was waking up with thoughts of home and family. Last night, she was gone. Some of my friends knew her, and I resolved to ask them about her when we started the next semester in a few weeks.
Then it happened. I often set thoughts to music, creating a sort of inner soundtrack. Slowly, softly, a song that seemed to encapsulate the sentiments of the tragedy began to play in my mind. The tendrils of thought and emotion were rooting deep now. A sense of sadness built. The tendrils intertwined.
Then they exploded.
Grief tore through me. It was sudden, unexpected, painful. I’d never felt its like before. It hurt in ways I never thought possible, It felt like something had been ripped out of my life. I wanted to sob like a child, but I tried to restrain myself lest I woke Hans. I fought the emotions as rationally as I could. I never knew her . . . I had no right or reason to grieve like this. I felt guilty for feeling this way in light of what the Hunts had endured, and the guilt fed into the feelings of emptiness and despair. I felt wounded somehow, I didn’t know why, and the confusion added more intensity to the swirling emotions within.
Why did it hurt so much?
Drained emotionally, I finally drifted off to sleep some time later. It remains to date the worst night of my life.
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.
Deppa, Joan. “25 Years Later: Reflecting on Pan Am 103 and the Media.” Watson Theater, Syracuse University, Syracuse. 10 Oct. 2013. Lecture.
Deppa, Joan. The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103. New York: New York UP, 1994. Print.
Flick, Barry. Pan Am 103 Passenger Statistics. Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives at Syracuse University: Victims and Families Collections: The Alexander Lowenstein Family Papers
Kane, Dan, and Amber Smith. “On Campus, the Shock Is Intense.” Syracuse Herald-Journal [Syracuse] 22 Dec. 1988, sec. A: 14. Print.
Livadas, Greg. “‘We Have to Be Strong . . . for Our Other Daughter'” Times Union [Rochester] 22 Dec. 1988: 1a+. Print.
Map, locations of bodies. Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives at Syracuse University: Victims and Families Collections: The Alexander Lowenstein Family Papers
Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives at Syracuse University
Saltzman, Jonathan. “Webster Family Waits for Call.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester] 22 Dec. 1988: 1a+. Print.
United Kingdom. Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Department of Transportation. Report on the Accident to Boeing 747-121, N739PA, at Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland on 21 December 1988. By DA Cooper and MM Charles. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. Originally published in 1990.
United Kingdom. Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Department of Transportation. 2/1990 Boeing 747-121, N739PA Appendices. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2014. Originally published in 1990.