LOCKERBIE, Scotland - Thirty-five students from Syracuse University in upstate New York and 235 others were killed on Dec. 21, 1988, when a bomb planted on a holiday season flight from London to New York blew the plane apart over Lockerbie, Scotland. My visit here this week left me sad and somber, once again.
Lockerbie is a small community with a population of just 4,300. The town is located about 75 miles south of Glasgow and only 20 miles north of the English border. I reached it easily on a one-hour train ride from Glasgow.
The town's Dryfesdale Cemetery is just a mile west of the city center and it is an easy walk along A709 Lochmaben Road. The cemetery is home to a large and prominent memorial to the victims of the bombing. The Garden of Remembrance for the victims is near the back of the cemetery.
Eleven residents of Lockerbie were among those killed when the plane's largest pieces landed in several parts of the community. The name of each person aboard the plane is engraved on the largest monument, while the smaller stone lists the Lockerbie residents who were killed.
The cemetery has a small visitors center which houses exhibits on the history of Lockerbie as well as the bombing. David Barron, one of the volunteers who staffs the center, is an excellent source of information about the crash. Barron said all volunteers were chosen because they did not live in Lockerbie when the disaster happened. Barron said the center organizers decided it would be too traumatic for residents to volunteer if they had lived there in 1988 because they would have known the local victims.
One of the local residents created a binder containing small black and white photos and brief biographies for as many victims as he could collect. It's a helpful guide and puts names and faces to those who died.
The ages of the victims ranged from two months to 82 years, representing 21 nations. Reading countless biographies is heartbreaking. A mother and her two young children were among the many who died, Two others caught my eye:
- Michael Bernstein was an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and a Nazi hunter. In fact, he had just been in Vienna, where he was representing the department in negotiations with the Austrian government over the deportation of suspected Nazi war criminals from the U.S. to Austria.
- John Mulroney, director of internal communications for the Associated Press, had five family members aboard the plane with him.
And of course, there were the 35 Syracuse students, all at various stages of their academic careers and no doubt full of hope and promise. There was a student aboard from Grinnell College in Iowa as well.
I don't doubt that families and friends of the victims continue to quietly grieve and covet the memories of their lost loved ones. I also wonder if they have been able to let go of their anger directed at the evil minds that perpetrated what remains the worst terrorist attack over United Kingdom soil.
My personal anger was stoked again when the one man who was convicted of murder in the bombing, a Libyan named Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 on compassionate grounds. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was expected to live for only three months, but he lived for two years and nine months in Tripoli Libya. The early release from his life sentence confounds me to this day, especially after visiting Lockerbie.
Some supporters, including Nelson Mandela, argued persuasively that al-Megrahi, who was a Libyan intelligence officer, was innocent of the crime. But the Libyan government had earlier accepted responsibility for the attack and paid compensation to families of the victims.
There are other memorials to the Lockerbie victims, including at Arlington National Cemetery and Syracuse University.