Left behind by Lockerbie
Sunday 06 December 1998
AT THE bottom of a garden in the town of Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, is an extraordinary sight. Fifty-one cement figures, of women young and old, create the effect of a modern Pompeii. Some of them are curled up in misery; others sit with their faces buried in their hands; others reach up to the sky; still others lie prone or supine on the ground.
This is the work of Suse Lowenstein, a German-born artist and sculptor who lost her 20-year-old son Alexander on 21 December 1988, when Pan Am flight 103 blew up in the skies over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie. But the figures which crowd Lowenstein's back yard are modelled on the living - on the grieving wives, daughters, mothers, sisters or lovers of victims of the disaster.
Alexander's death inspired this unusual sculpture garden. The first figure Suse created was of herself; she went on to sculpt many of the women she met through the Pan Am 103 Families' Group meetings, putting a notice in the group's newsletter which asked anyone interested in being included in the work - which she called "Dark Elegy" - to reply. The response was overwhelming. "I've still another 50 or so to do," Suse says. "This will be my life's work." Buried deep in the cement breast of each sculpture is a token representing the person being mourned: a photograph, toy, favourite tape, scrap of clothing, piece of poetry, sneaker, golf ball. "I put in a letter to Alexander in which I reiterated what a wonderful son he was and how much I love him," says Lowenstein, whose dream is to see "Dark Elegy" cast in bronze and placed outside the UN building in Manhattan. She says that creating the piece has helped her greatly. "It is a large part of my coping and dealing with Alexander's death," she says. "Healing is the wrong word because the wound of losing Alexander will never heal. But the project gives me comfort."
Two hundred and seventy men, women and children from 21 countries died in the Lockerbie disaster. There were American service families based in Germany, going home for Christmas with their relatives. There were young English couples flying to New York for a few days' shopping. There were 35 students, including Alexander Lowenstein, from Syracuse University in upstate New York, returning home after a four-month semester in London. The average age of the victims was 27.
Every family devastated by Lockerbie has found a different way of coping. Some have dedicated themselves to trying to improve air safety. Others have resolved to uncover the truth of who was behind the bombing. Everyone wants justice; many want revenge. The word "closure" is one which the bereaved have come to hate, but the feeling of unfinished business is all-powerful. No one has been identified as responsible for the bombing, although theories abound. The one given most credence is that Libya was behind the bombing: two Libyans have been indicted under Scottish law but Colonel Gaddafi will not agree to their extradition to be tried in the Hague. The truth about Lockerbie is shrouded in bureaucratic secrecy, diplomatic evasiveness, political bet-hedging. Perhaps one of the few aspects of the case which all the families agree on is that British and American intelligence knew far more than they will admit. Three weeks before the disaster, the US State Department had issued a warning to its diplomats that a Pan Am flight out of Frankfurt could be the target of a bomb. Evidently this warning was phoned to the US embassy in Helsinki early in December 1988, and circulated to American diplomatic staff all over Europe. The travelling public was never informed. There have since been rumours of many bomb warnings, but this is the only substantiated one: it was confirmed by the US State Department when the New York Times printed the memo which had been distributed to American embassy staff. Bob Monetti, who lost his 20-year-old son Rick, says, "It's all smoke and mirrors." Meanwhile, every time the possibility arises of the Libyans coming to trial, the wounds are reopened.
Some have striven to put the past behind them; these families have steered clear of the Pan Am support groups in Britain and America. Others take comfort from the groups' meetings and the friendships generated by them. Some families have raised money to fund scholarships and awards dedicated to the memories of those they lost.
A few of the bereaved have become international figures, adept at handling the world's media. It is notable that the most relentless of the Lockerbie activists - on both sides of the Atlantic - seem to be parents who lost children. In Britain, Lockerbie has become identified with Jim Swire, the Bromsgrove GP who has worked tirelessly to discover who killed his 23-year-old daughter Flora. In a bedroom of the Swires' large, rambling house is a portrait of Flora, painted by the father of her American boyfriend. It shows a dark-haired girl in a long dress, wild flowers in her hand, standing against the landscape of Skye. "It was a place she loved," Jim Swire says. "She is buried there." He loves the picture, although he says it "relights the keenness of losing her".
As with all the families devastated by Lockerbie, Jim and Jane Swire see their lives in terms of before and after. But while Jane has grieved in private, Jim has spent the last 10 years travelling the world in his tireless search for the truth about the atrocity. His conclusion is that an Iranian-funded, Syrian terrorist group was responsible, and that the deed was to revenge the shooting-down of an Iranian airbus by the US missile cruiser Vincennes in the Gulf, in July 1988. Swire has also campaigned for increased airport security, and once, in a highly publicised attempt to demonstrate the continuing inefficiency of airline security, smuggled a case of marzipan (which has the same density and appearance as Semtex) on to a transatlantic flight. He has lobbied the United Nations, has helped devise the legal strategy for an international trial under Scottish law and has worked to keep Lockerbie on the media agenda.
He has been successful, but the price has been high. Jane worried endlessly about her remaining children, Flora's younger brother and sister, who hated the media attention their father brought the family. Swire suffers from nightmares and has been on anti-depressants for most of the last 10 years. Three years into his campaign, he was told by his medical partners that he was not spending enough time in the practice and was sacked, losing hundreds of thousands of pounds in wages and NHS pension rights.
"Yes, there's been a heavy price to pay," he says. "But I think there would have been a heavier price had I sat on my hands and done nothing. I think I would have come to grief terribly if I hadn't done anything." His mental poise depends on how the campaign is progressing: "I've noticed that the times when I've really been down have been when those in authority appeared to have lost momentum or when nothing seemed to be happening." He takes strength from his belief that he is doing what Flora would have wanted him to do. "You get the bastards," he says, anger bringing tears to his eyes. "I think that would have been her attitude. She was just on the threshold of a brilliant medical career and then suddenly ... cut off, just like that. She has to be saying, who the hell did that to me? You go and get the bastards."
In America, in the 10 years since the bombing, the Pam Am 103 Families' Group has split and split again, so that there are now four factions, each with its own agenda. Out of the schisms have emerged the strange and tireless figures of Dan and Susan Cohen, whose only daughter, 20-year-old Theodora, was killed. The Cohens are harsh, uncompromising activists who have no time for the less abrasive methods of the other families - "pussyfooting", they call it - and are consequently widely disliked. The Cohens keep themselves in a state of perpetual outrage, using their anger to master the furious soundbite. Whenever ABC, CBS, the Washington Post or the New York Times need some irate words about Lockerbie, someone will reach for the phone and call them. Whenever Madeleine Albright or a State Department suit is trying to soothe the families, the Cohens will disrupt the meeting with a shouting match, and be the first to denounce the politicians. They make no apologies: "One of the myths about all of this is that tragedy makes you a better person," says Dan Cohen. "It doesn't. I'm not a better person than I used to be: I'm an angry and bitter person." He says he'd be happy to see the US government fire a few missiles into Libya. "I don't believe in justice any more," he says. "I have no problem with the word revenge, no problem at all."
Susan Cohen agrees with her husband. "I feel abandoned," she says. "I feel betrayed. I feel like nobody in the world did anything about this terrible bombing or really cared. And I'm angry. So it doesn't make me a better person ... I want to see some justice done to the people who did this, the countries which did this. They destroyed my life when they took away hers ..." In the Cohens' secluded house at the tip of New Jersey, no photographs of Theodora are visible. Her grave is unmarked.
Like Alexander Lowenstein and Theodora Cohen, 20-year-old Rick Monetti, from New Jersey, was among the Syracuse students. Occasionally his parents, Bob and Eileen Monetti, will watch a harrowing film sequence. Shot by the Federal Aviation Administration on an airfield in Alabama, filmed by four different cameras inside and outside a grounded, wide-bodied airliner, it shows the plane being blown apart by a bomb. A sudden flare of light; the cabin interior lurches and buckles. A plume of smoke and fire punctures the aircraft's casing, which peels back like the skin of an orange. As the structure fails, the nose section separates from the fuselage. In seconds, the jet has become a blizzard of fragments.
"The FAA put the same amount of explosives in the area of the cargo where the bomb was that blew up Pan Am 103," Bob Monetti explains, in matter- of-fact tones. "This is the result. Imagine that happening at 600 miles an hour and at 30,000ft. It would all have been over in a second. Rick and the rest of the folk on that plane would never have known what happened." He smiles grimly. "Anyway, that's what we tell ourselves."
It's cold comfort, but the Monettis cling to it, as they cling to the memory of their energetic, sports-mad son. "Rick really enjoyed life," Bob Monetti says. "We used to say that he never met a party he didn't like. He was some kid." He and his wife are friendly and hospitable, but the hurt is never far away. As Eileen Monetti, who has given up teaching "for health reasons", bleakly puts it: "The joys are never as joyful."
One of the last entries in Rick's diary, which was recovered from the scattered wreckage of the plane, reads: "Do all you can while you can. Life is a one-time deal ... be fun and go crazy. There is no reason to hold anything back. Nothing to lose." In the 10 years since Rick lost his life, his father has channelled his energies into finding out about airport security systems, in the hope of preventing such a disaster from ever happening again. "We've got a few things done," is how he summarises a decade of obsessive work. "We got the Aviation Security Act of 1990 put on the books. The FAA takes security much more seriously than it used to. Now we're working on passenger-profiling and blast-proof luggage containers. And trying to get better X-ray scanning equipment in place. It's something, I guess."
The list of the bereaved whose lives have been irrevocably changed goes on and on. Marina de Larrachochea, a Basque woman living in New York, whose 39-year-old sister Nieves was killed, spends her days trudging around America's law libraries and courts in the pursuit of justice. Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter died, lectures British police and airport officials on how to treat the families of disaster victims. Michael Bernstein, one of America's top Nazi-hunters, was 36 when he was killed. His wife, Stephanie, has remarried, but she remains haunted by the notion that work-contacts of Michael's might have known that Pan Am 103 was doomed.
Georgia Nucci is a lawyer who lives near Albany in upstate New York. In 1987 Nucci's 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer, died of a tropical disease while in Ecuador. A year later, her 20-year-old son Christopher was killed, flying home from Syracuse on Pan Am 103. Georgia Nucci's reaction was to find a new family. At a meeting of the Pan Am 103 Families' Group she had heard about the possibility of adopting in Colombia. In June 1990, she flew to Bogot and adopted four Colombian orphans, aged four, six, seven and 11, three of whom have godparents from the Pan Am 103 Families' Group. Georgia Nucci is no sentimentalist. Bringing up a gang of street- reared Colombian children was never going to be easy. "We had our moments," she says drily. "Three of the kids are just fine, although there has been a bit of tension with the eldest. But I think she'll be all right." Why did she do it? Her answer is disarmingly honest:"I just needed a family. I had to have a family."
Geri Buser's family was decimated by the disaster. She lost her husband, Warren, her son Michael and her daughter Lorraine in the ruin of Pan Am 103. Lorraine was married with a three-year-old daughter, and was pregnant, so the disaster struck at three generations of the Buser family. A big, heavy, middle-aged woman with a strong New Jersey accent, Geri finds it hard to talk about the family without breaking down. "They were on a short break to England just to use up Warren's air miles," she says. "They were only to be gone a few days. I didn't know that Lorraine was pregnant until my other daughter told me. I got Warren and Lorraine back, they are buried here in New Jersey. But Michael's body was never found."
Has the passing of 10 years done anything to ease her grief? "No. If anything, it's harder. You think, what would their lives have been in 10 years' time? Would Michael have been married with children? Lorraine wanted three children, and she would have probably had them by now." Geri often feels lonely. "Especially at nights. There's no one to talk to any more."
She makes a regular pilgrimage to Lockerbie, this year paying her eighth visit to the town. She went to her usual haunts - the memorial garden at Dryfesdale Cemetery, the churchyard at Tundergarth, the rebuilt streets of Sherwood Crescent and Rosebank Terrace. One might think that Lockerbie would be the last place on earth she would want to visit, but no. "I find peace there," she says. "I feel closer to the three of them there than I ever do in New Jersey. I don't know what it is, there's something that calms me. If they had to die, thank God it was in Lockerbie." She has struck up a friendship with a local widow called Ella Ramsden. It was in the wreckage of Ella Ramsden's house in Rosebank Terrace that the bodies of Warren and Lorraine Buser were found, along with more than 60 others. Ella Ramsden's memory of that night is vivid: her dog growling; a huge explosion "like an atom bomb"; the roof collapsing as wreckage and bodies rained down on the house. "I took my chip-pan and broke the glass panel on my door," Ella recalls. "I saw a man lying in the street and remember saying we should get a doctor for him. Then they took me away." The council house has been rebuilt, but Ella no longer lives there.
Geri Buser's affection for the dour little border town is shared by many of the bereaved families, particularly the American families, who were deeply moved by the way in which the people of Lockerbie collected up the victims' torn and blood-stained clothes, carefully washed and ironed them, wrapped them in tissue paper, put them in boxes and returned them to the families. "We were told by the State Department that we couldn't have the clothes back," says Aphrodite Tsairis, whose 19-year-old daughter Alexia was one of the victims. "They said that things were too badly damaged. But the people of Lockerbie just did it. I can't tell you what that meant to us."
John and Lisa Mosey's daughter, Helga, died at Lockerbie. She was 19, returning from her parents' Worcestershire home to New Jersey, where she was working as a nanny, when she was killed. She is one of only three victims of the bombing who were buried in the small churchyard at Tundergarth, near where her body was found. After Helga's death, friends and neighbours who wished to commemorate her life sent money to her local church, and the donations were used by her parents to found a children's home in the Philippines in their daughter's name. The Moseys find solace in the thought that there are children alive today who would have died if Helga had not been killed. But like everyone else who lost a loved one at Lockerbie, they are plagued by a terrible sense of things left unresolved. John Mosey speaks for all the families bereaved by Lockerbie: "We'd like to be able to move on and forgive whoever did this terrible thing, but we don't know who to forgive."
! 'Surviving Lockerbie', a documentary written by George Rosie and produced by STV, will be shown on ITV on 21 December
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