I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
On April 15, 1986, United States F-111, A-6, and F/A-18 attack aircraft struck military and government facilities in Libya in retaliation for the recent bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. servicemen. Warned at the last moment of the impending attack, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi fled shortly before laser-guided bombs slammed into his compound.
Gaddafi’s outlandish uniforms, blustery speeches, and futile attempt to establish a “line of death” in the Gulf of Sidra made him the perfect fodder for comedians and political cartoonists, yet the ridicule merely distracted the American public from the realization that the Libyan autocrat was a vicious and unforgiving man who would not allow the attacks of April 15 to go unpunished.
Nine days after the air raids, a nuclear disaster near an obscure city in the Soviet Union captured the airwaves, and most of us quickly forgot the latest salvo in a complex and murky struggle between nation states.
Few, if any of the students who submitted applications to Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad in the opening weeks of 1988 were thinking about the bombing of Tripoli nearly 2 years earlier. Many of the applicants were sophomores who anticipate spending the opening term of their junior years overseas. A varied lot, the students collectively faced the prospect of spending nearly 4 months away from family, friends, and the familiar routines of college life. Their reasons for applying were equally diverse. Some sought expertise, others the opportunity to practice their craft and artistry in culturally rich cities. Several were following significant others overseas; more than a few realized that the opportunity to spend so much time abroad was unlikely to present itself again.
Among the locations, Syracuse’s London Center in Notting Hill was an especially popular choice.
Several hundred students departed for London during the first week of September. Many of them were poets, actors, artists, photographers, and writers—people with whom I had much in common. A disproportionate number of them were English, Theater, Communications, or Art majors. Had I attended Syracuse, I would know many of them quite well. Had I attended Syracuse, I might have been among them.
Spring, 1988. Chicago
A young woman watched the softening light bathe Chicago’s vast skyline in warm hues. Transfixed for a moment by the scene unfolding beyond her hotel window, she absorbed the scene through her enormous brown eyes. The encroaching darkness signaled an end to one of the most remarkable days of Karen Lee Hunt’s young life.
Karen, a sophomore majoring in English at Syracuse University, flew with her mother to Chicago with the intention of interviewing the notoriously reclusive editors of Playboy Magazine for a class project. The ambitious and risky project left relatively little time for her to pull things together before the due date, but the payoff made it all worthwhile—she would have one of the most unique feature articles in her magazine writing class, and stories to share with friends for months to come.
It had been a challenging day for the 20 year-old sophomore. Karen had done her best to reign in her nerves before the interview, but doubts nagged her from the moment she left Playboy’s headquarters. Karen was disappointed with her performance during the interview, lamenting that she “should have asked more questions.”
Peggy Hunt, who had accompanied Karen to Chicago enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship with her daughter. The women would often lose themselves in long conversations about faith, school, and relationships. Peggy was often the first person Karen would call when she was upset or frustrated, and her mother had mastered the art of allaying her daughter’s concerns long ago. As darkness fell, she gently reminded Karen of just how special this trip was—few in her class could boast of anything approaching this experience. Peggy told her daughter that she should be legitimately proud of the hard work and dedication that led to the trip. The pep talk worked: Karen finally began to relax as concerns diminished.
Peggy smiled as the tension melted from Karen’s face. Inwardly, she couldn’t be more proud of her daughter than she was tonight. Karen had become a striking woman who was beginning to fully reach her potential. Though the interview came together earlier that semester, the trip to Chicago was the actually the culmination of years of work.
That Karen would go to such lengths for a class project was a reflection of her growing ambition and confidence. She aspired to be a writer from childhood, when she spent hours writing short stories with friends or alone in her room. She wrote her first poems in grade school and continued to hone and develop her skills through her teens, often sharing her work with friends and teachers. Her work was often reflective and sensitive, serving, as poetry often does, as a channel for her feelings.
Karen’s talent and capacity for empathy was on full display in the spring of 1981 when her neighborhood was touched by tragedy. A gruesome accident at Seabreeze Park claimed the life of one of the neighborhood’s teens, a girl a few years older than Karen. Shortly after the tragedy, Karen spotted two of the girl’s friends wandering along the street. The sight of them walking without their friend struck a chord within the young girl, who then worked for several days to produce a pair of poems she would eventually share with the fallen girl’s friends. One of these poems, “Somewhere, My Friend,” showcased Karen’s sensitivity and talent at the age of 13:
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.
I’m not sure how
And I’m not sure when,
Somewhere my friend.
The poem would take on new meaning nearly a decade later.
In high school, Karen structured her coursework and activities around her ambitions, taking classes in photography, typing, and television production. In addition to her classes, she joined R.L Thomas High School’s yearbook, television, and literary magazine staffs. A competent student, Karen excelled in her English classes—hardly surprising, given her knack for spending hours with pen and paper at home.
As she approached graduation, Karen visited a number of colleges and universities, sweated out the admission process, and finally chose Syracuse University. The school’s reputation and broad selection of majors and courses were the strongest appeals, and she matriculated at S.U. in the fall of 1986.
Many freshman struggled with the transition from high school to college, particularly at a large, competitive research university, and Karen was no exception. Highly intelligent, Karen nonetheless found it difficult to strike a balance between her coursework, activities, and social life. Friends sometimes noticed that as a freshman, Karen sometimes lacked confidence in her abilities.
Her sophomore year marked the start of a personal renaissance. Karen was maturing at a staggering rate, gaining confidence and growing more adventurous with each passing week. She’d joined a number of clubs, started a serious relationship, and in spite of her quiet temperament, pledged Pi Beta Phi, one of the University’s sororities.
Today’s trip was born out of her surging confidence in her future potential. Earlier this spring, Day Hall held floor awards for the most successful and most ambitious students. Karen missed out on both awards. A frustrated Karen told her roommate, “I’ll just have to show them.”
Her trip to Chicago, her greatest adventure to date, generated a fair amount of buzz among the students in Syracuse’s vaunted Newhouse School. The quiet but determined sophomore was fast evolving into a student to be noticed.
The trip to Chicago was just the beginning. On March 30, the University mailed letters notifying applicants of their admission to the Division of International Programs Abroad. Karen Hunt was going to spend the fall studying at S.U.s London Center in Notting Hill. There couldn’t be a more ideal adventure for an English major.
Karen and Peggy spent the evening relaxing in the hotel. Calmer now, Karen sat on the hotel’s couch; her dark hair framed her face as she rested the point of her chin in her hand. Never fond of having her picture taken, Karen nevertheless mustered a smile as her mother snapped a shot.
It was the last photo Peggy Hunt would take of her daughter in the United States.
Day Hall, Syracuse University
Day Hall towered 8 stories over a drumlin someone long ago whimsically named Mount Olympus. The hill’s steep sides and rounded top served as reminders of New York’s unique geological past, though few students thought of glacial deposits as they slogged up and down the wooden steps that slithered up the hillside in an almost predatory manner. Though covered, the stairs presented a daunting final obstacle to students making their way back to their rooms after late evenings of classes—or even later nights on South Crouse or Marshall Street, particularly during Syracuse’s notoriously hostile winters. Nonetheless, Day and nearby Flint housed nearly 1,000 students between them as the dorms’ sweeping views of campus and town, shared dining hall, and close proximity to the main campus were appealing enough to partially compensate for the climb.
Students passing through Day’s 7th floor study lounge paid little mind to the woman seated amid a scattering of notes, papers, and magazines, enmeshed in the midst of a frantic all-nighter. The semester was drawing to a close—many of them had been there themselves, and others would be soon enough. Too engrossed in her work to pay attention to the occasional early morning passer by, Karen Hunt, just back from Chicago, frantically wrote, revised, and edited her Playboy project for Magazine Writing. Hours ticked by as the exhausted sophomore wove her memories and notes into the feature-length story until finally, as the sky to the east began to lighten, she wrapped her project in a cover. More exhausted and relieved than elated, Karen stood, stretched, and wandered off for a quick break before wrapping everything up. Perhaps she’d even have just enough time to catch a few hours of sleep before staggering down those infernal stairs on her way to Newhouse.
Wrapped in a Playboy cover, Karen’s project, the culmination of weeks of planning and work, sat briefly unattended on a study-lounge table. It was nearly dawn, hardly a popular time for wandering students to be about, when she left the lounge—yet something was amiss when Karen returned to the scene of the all-nighter a few minutes later. The project wasn’t where she left it. A cursory search quickly turned frantic when she realized that the project was nowhere to be found. Panic overcame her exhaustion—someone must have walked off with the project while she was away, leaving her faced with the very real possibility that the project that had taken weeks to plan and execute was gone.
Horrified, Karen called her mother before Peggy had to leave for work. Peggy did her best to calm her daughter and focus Karen’s thoughts, finally, suggesting that Karen gather some friends to make posters asking for the project’s return with no questions asked. A somewhat calmer Karen recruited a few friends who quickly set to work in hopes of saving her grade.
Somewhere in Day Hall, a student opened the free copy of Playboy conveniently left in the 7th floor study lounge the previous night.
Karen’s friends joined her in canvassing the dorm for any sign of the project. As hope faded, one of them saw something in a first floor stairwell—sheets of paper scattered on the floor near a Playboy cover. Surprised, disappointed, and a bit sheepish, the culprit tossed the project down the stairs. Nonetheless, the damage had been limited to a few wrinkled pages and several hours of abject panic.
Once everything settled, Karen and her friends knew they’d have a story to share and laugh about when she’d return from London—and for years afterward.
The near disaster was an unnerving start to the frenetic closing weeks of Karen’s sophomore year. The Playboy project was but one of several due before finals, and as she had been in high school, Karen was active in a number of clubs and organizations, particularly UUTV and WAER. In spite of the assignments, clubs, and a part-time job, Karen still managed to find time to join her friends for evenings of dancing at Bugsy’s on Crouse Avenue and hours of conversation afterward. Karen’s friends learned long ago that the introverted young woman was as comfortable in large groups as she was when alone with her words and thoughts, and they appreciated Karen’s wit, honesty, and empathy. More than a few marveled at her ability to read and analyze a situation before offering advice. Karen was confident in her judgement, and she was usually right. Her friends often felt blessed when she joined them on their outings.
Karen was particularly keen to reserve enough of her scarce time for her boyfriend, Mark; the couple had met as freshmen nearly 2 years before. Mark, a member of the gymnastics team, lived hours from Webster, and the long hours of practice in the gym and the hundreds of miles between their homes made their time together especially meaningful.
As busy as her life was, Karen could, as was her way, reflect on the past year while looking beyond the fall. As ambitious as the trip to Chicago had been, it would pale in comparison to the adventure that awaited her in London in the fall. It was exciting but daunting, and the repercussions of her trip to London were already weighing on her mind. She’d start a job at a corporation in Syracuse shortly after the end of the semester. The job would help fund the trip abroad, but it would also mean being away from Webster until the end of August. She’d leave for London in the first week of September. With the exception of weekends and breaks, Karen had been away from her family since last August. Now, she faced the prospect of being away from them through the end of December.
Independent and resilient, Karen was nevertheless unusually close to her family, often seeking advice or comfort through long phone calls and weekend conversations with her parents, Robert and Peggy. Karen was particularly close to Robyn, her younger sister. Robert and Peggy both worked at Xerox, and during her high school years Karen would often care for Robyn, 7 years her junior, until their parents came home. They’d have their occasional squabbles, but the sisters shared a powerful connection. Robyn was elated when her older sister returned from Syracuse; when she left, Robyn would cling to Karen. Karen was ecstatic about London, but the thought of being away from family, friends, school, and home for so many months weighed heavily on her.
The changes would continue at a breakneck pace beyond London, as Karen had joined Pi Kappa Phi that spring. The recently recolonized sorority’s house on Walnut Street would be Karen’s new home on campus for the remainder of her time st Syracuse University—at last, the daily trips up and down the Mount Olympus steps would be a thing of the past.
Beyond all of this loomed the greatest changes of all—graduation in the spring of 1990, job hunting, and a strong likelihood of a wedding. Half of Karen’s college career was behind her; the remainder was shrouded in uncertainty. At times, she was driven and career oriented, so much so that she sometimes told her friends of her intention to drop out of school to start her own magazine. Yet she faced moments of uncertainty as well, as she was well aware of the challenges of becoming a journalist and of balancing a frequently nomadic profession with her deep connection to her family and her commitment to Mark.
She’d worked hard to improve as a student; now, in the final days of her sophomore year, so many things finally seemed to be falling into place. Friends and professors noted her growing sense of maturity and confidence, but inwardly, the thought of spending months away from family and friends loomed large in Karen’s thoughts. She’d be away until December 21, the longest night of the year.
An observer wouldn’t see these struggles reflected in Karen’s huge eyes. Although she was born counselor with a knack for discerning the inner workings of other people’s minds, Karen preferred to keep her deepest concerns veiled, expressing them only to family and the closest of friends.
Summer, 1988. Syracuse and Webster, NY
Karen had worked since her sophomore year in high school. In recent years, she’d spent her summers at Xerox, where she had the chance to use the company’s then revolutionary Star 6085 system. That experience, coupled with her skill as a typist and her skill as a proofreader, landed her a job in CIS Corp’s word processing department during the summer. A few workers chuckled at Karen’s habit of tucking her legs up and canting her head to one side as she typed intently for hours at a time. Karen proved herself to be a bright, friendly addition to the department, and her coworkers appreciated her charming personality and grammatical skill.
Karen shared an apartment with several other students who were spending the summer in Syracuse, often caring for them when someone was waylaid by an occasional illness. This was the first summer she’d spent away from her family, and though the weeks away from her parents and Robyn were difficult, the job offered her the chance to earn enough money to fund the trip overseas, and the independence fostered by spending several months with roommates in an apartment would also serve her well in London.
Weekends afforded her the opportunity to make the 90 minute trip back to Webster. During one such visit about 2 months before she was scheduled to leave for London, Karen’s unspoken anxieties finally manifested themselves in a nightmare that involved something horrific happening to her flight. The dream was hardly an unusual one for someone about to make a long trip, but the visions were disturbing enough to make her second guess the entire venture.
Syracuse’s Division of International Studies Abroad was competitive, especially for the more popular locations, and London was the most popular of all. Karen had spent weeks anxiously awaiting a letter from the program. Her hopes were realized at the end of March. It was the next step in her personal evolution, a chance for her to challenge the world and herself on a new stage. She’d barely been able to contain her excitement over the final weeks of the semester. Yet as the summer began to wane toward the day of departure, doubt began to insinuate itself.
Her semester in London would change her; it would give her a chance, perhaps her best chance, to become more worldly. It would also mean spending over 3 months in a strange land away from her family, friends, and boyfriend. Webster, M Street, Crouse, Newhouse, and the Hall of Languages, all the familiar places, would be 3,000 miles away. That familiarity was now a clarion call beckoning her to stay home.
The once uncertain and introverted woman had traveled to Chicago for a class assignment, pledged a sorority, and made a name for herself on campus. No one think less of her for returning to campus in the fall, but she might never have such an opportunity again.
Indecisive and dejected, Karen wandered into to the kitchen to talk things over with Peggy. Her mother listened intently as Karen related the nightmare and laid out her concerns. At one point, she said “Maybe I shouldn’t even go.”
Eventually she looked directly at Peggy and asked if she believed that things happened for a reason. Karen and Peggy often had these kinds of conversations—Karen had a lifelong fascination with spiritual and philosophical questions—and the women found themselves engrossed in a long discussion about fate and purpose. By the afternoon, they agreed that there was a design to the scheme of things. What will be, will be.
Thousands of DIPA students had made the trip abroad; dozens of them had similar conversations with family and friends, and all of them came home safely. London’s allure was too strong; Karen never cancelled her reservation.
She’d leave in a matter of weeks.
September 5, 1988
Karen was many things to Robyn: a caretaker in the hours before their parents came home, a protector, a counselor, a sister, and a best friend. Karen’s knack for saying the right thing at the right time was a blessing for the 13 year-old who was wending her way through the awkward years of early adolescence; Karen’s absence was a bane. This had been the hardest year of Robyn’s life. The sisters had never spent so much time apart, and with Karen leaving for London the next day, the long weeks between visits would pale in comparison to the nearly 4 months Karen would be away.
Eighth Grade would start the next day, but Robyn’s thoughts were of her older sister who even then continued to pack everything she’d need for the upcoming semester abroad. Despondency engulfed her as she sat on her bed. She was almost in tears when Karen slipped quietly into her room. The older sister climbed on to the bed holding a tape recorder in her right hand. Karen had a playful side, and the device would give her the chance to amuse her sister while giving Robyn a small but precious gift—a recording of her voice.
Karen began an impromptu recording session with a hint of mischief in her voice: “Um, the date is September . . .” Unsettled, Robyn begged her sister to stop: “Karen, no, don’t. Then I’ll listen to it when you’re gone and I’ll be sad.” Pausing for a moment, Karen asked why. “What if something happens?” Karen shrugged off the suggestion and started recording again:, “Oh, she’s going to be so sad . . . today is September 5 and tomorrow is September 6th and I’m leaving for London, and Robyn misses me.” Karen’s voice trailed off with a warm lilt as Robyn protested in the background. She emulated a reporter broadcasting from London, faked some accents, and finally increased the playback speed to produce a ridiculously high-pitched voice that finally got Robyn to giggle. Karen’s antics took a bit of the edge off the sadness of the impending departure.
September 6, 1988
Karen stared at the house for a few moments. Between school, the summer job, and the trip from London, she had never been able to spend much time in the Hunt’s new home.
Her meticulously packed bags filled the back of the car. Robert, Peggy, and Robyn joined her; the family backed out of the driveway, eventually driving west toward Rochester International airport. She’d reverse the trip in a few months when her feeder flight would land in Rochester, and she’d finally have a few weeks to spend with her family before returning to Syracuse for the remainder of her junior year.
The trip was the product of events set into motion last fall and winter. This was the culmination of months of waiting, planning, excitement, and anxiety. In the back of her mind, she wondered if this was really happening, but the sight of the airport dispelled any doubts. Karen Lee Hunt was about to embark on the greatest adventure of her life. She was going to London.
Travelers scurried about Rochester International Airport as the Hunts checked in and placed Karen’s bags on the conveyor. Karen, Robyn, and Peggy posed for a few photos. A small crowd of well-wishers shared heartfelt farewells with her, then with a final glance at her friends and family, Karen turned and walked through the passenger tunnel to the plane that would whisk her away to New York City. She’d pass through this same terminal on December 21, just under 4 months from now.
The plane ascended, passing over Fairport as it headed southeast. Karen watched Rochester slip behind her.
JFK’s cavernous interior dwarfed Rochester’s diminutive terminal. Karen dragged her luggage, heavy with a semester’s worth of belongings, to the appropriate gate. The conveyor spirited the bags away toward the waiting plane.
The 747’s designers made the interior as anodyne as possible, and the soft light and muted colors of the cabin presented a welcome contrast to the frenetic terminal. Karen took her seat; within an hour, the four massive Pratt & Whitney engines spooled up, driving the jumbo jet toward the Atlantic. Lifting off from the tarmac, the once ungainly aircraft climbed gracefully over Long Island. For the second time, Karen watches a familiar sight vanish behind her.
As the giant airliner flew east toward Heathrow, Karen became a part of a small biannual migration of college students. Over two hundred Syracuse University students were heading for London. Among them were two of Karen’s sorority sisters, Alexia Tsairis and Julianne Kelly. Twin brothers Jason and Eric Coker made the trip as well, as did Theodora Cohen, Nicole Boulanger, Richard Monetti, and a host of others. All were enrolled in S.U.’s DIPA program, though a number of the students hailed from a several other colleges. Collectively, they were some of the brightest, most talented, and most ambitious students at their respective schools.
Several flights bore them to London’s Heathrow Airport, where the nervous, giddy students gathered their bags and suitcases and collected their thoughts as best they could.
Exhausted and jet-lagged from the long trip, the students made their way to Syracuse’s London Center, then located in Notting Hill, by bus, taxi, and tube. Though most of them had already been awake for the better part of 24 hours, they still had much to do; a brief orientation preceded a frantic scrum—these were the days before online searches and prearranged housing—as students scrambled to find roommates and housing in the unfamiliar neighborhoods around the center, which was located in Kensington Park Gardens in 1988. Students banded together to defray the cost of housing only to discover, much to their consternation, that rent was charged by the occupant rather than by the room.
Though stressful and taxing, the search for roommates and housing produced often unconventional living arrangements that would foster lasting friendships and memories. Elizabeth St. Hilaire had agreed to room with Shannon Davis before they’d left for London. The two women found a small flat and a pair of unexpected roommates in Frederick “Sandy” Phillips and Suzanne Miazga; Elizabeth and Suzanne instantly become fast friends. Theo Cohen roomed with some friends around the corner.
Alexia Tsaris and Julianne Kelly joined Sarah Phillips in a flat on Elgin Crescent, a shop-lined street popular with students due to its close proximity to the center.
Karen Hunt and her new roommates rented a flat in Campden Hill Towers, an imposing modern building in Notting Hill Gate. Several blocks from the center, the flat’s location afforded the women easy access to a number of shops, restaurants, pubs and, crucially, the Notting Hill tube station.
Lived at 64 Campden hill towers and remember well the night before the disaster as the Syracuse students enjoyed a leaving get together. I always remember the silence the next evening coming from there apartment and the sad feeling has stayed with me forever Rip Karen
This story is heartbreaking. I knew Eric and Jason Coker who were Syracuse DIPA students and who died in the disaster. They attended the London Semester in 1988 one year after I did. As long as I live, I will never come to terms with the senseless and heartless acts which deprived these wonderful young people, and many others, of their lives. May Karen, Eric, Jason and all of the victims rest in peace.