20 Years Later: Remembering Pan Am Flight 103

Thirty-five Syracuse students were among the hundreds killed in the disaster.

October 20, 2008, 6:01 PM

SYRACUSE, N.Y., Oct. 24, 2008 — -- It has been 20 years since 35 Syracuse University students lost their lives in the Pan Am Flight 103 crash that killed 270 people.

SU professor Lawrence Mason remembers the Lockerbie, Scotland, disaster as a "time of great desperation."

"You want to help but you don't think you can, you don't want to be in the way, but you want to try something," Mason said. "Everyone needed to let everyone know they were there for each other. But that didn't seem to be enough."

Mason taught eight of the students aboard the flight, two of whom he worked closely with. Since 1988 he has made 12 trips to the crash site.

During Mason's first trip in 1996, he looked for closure, peace and answers. He soon realized that there was more to Lockerbie than the plane crash. Now, more than a decade later, Mason has written a book about what he found: "Looking for Lockerbie," a story about the town and its people. The book will be available at the beginning of December.

"The fact is that the people who lived in Lockerbie had to find a way to put Pan Am 103 behind them and into the past. You can't spend the rest of your life grieving and mourning. You have to live your life. And the people who live there learned this lesson," Mason said.

The town's struggle parallels Mason's struggle to find closure. During one of his trips back, he had an experience that he said reaffirmed the importance of his book project and helped him find peace. He was standing in the field where the plane hit the ground, when he looked out past the crash site.

"There was a beautiful cottage, and a sharp rising hill, covered with sheep and it was raining, but at that moment the clouds parted, and a little beam of sunlight came down, hit the cottage and lit up the hillside for me," Mason said.

He said it was then that he felt a real connection with the two students he had known so well.

"What surprised me was that they didn't feel tortured to me, they felt at peace," he said. Mason later found out that the site he had photographed was where the two students' bodies were found.

Mason's book is being published by Worldwide Orange Publications with money donated by families of the Pan Am 103 victims. They will be the first to get the book when they visit the campus this week during the weeklong memorial devoted to remembering the students SU lost. Thirty-five students from SU will represent each of the students who died by teaching the campus about the victims and hosting several memorial events.

There will also be an annual service and gathering at the Wall of Remembrance on the afternoon of Dec. 21. "Those of us who are here at that time of year, come together to share a special time together," Mason said. "We are often joined by family members of some of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103."

Amid tragedy the families have made SU a second home.

"What's beautiful about this is that when you taught one of their children and you meet them, they feel like their son or daughter is not really lost because someone else remembers them and talks about them and shares things about them," he said.

For the families of the victims, Lockerbie also holds a special place in their hearts, Mason said.

"There's no manual on how to deal with a disaster like this, but the Lockarians did everything right, every step of the way, including gathering all the belongings that fell from the plane, finding who they belonged to, washing all the clothes, folding them, packing them and returning them to the families," he said. "They took it upon themselves to go to the bodies and put a flower, and say a prayer, and look after the bodies."

Twenty years later, the pain is not lessened for the families of the victims, Mason said. As he prepares for this year's Remembrance Week and the publication of his book, he said he has found closure.

As for the families, some have found peace, and others may never. But if any good could come out of this tragedy, he said, the bond between SU, the victims' families and a little town in southern Scotland is it. And his book, as a tribute to the Lockerbie people, he hopes, is another.

Twenty years ago, Matthew Grzelak and Jaclyn Pfaehler were barely 2 years old.

They don't remember the Pan Am 103 crash. But they remember the victims. Grzelak and Pfaehler are two of the 35 Remembrance Scholars from SU. It's their job to represent two of the victims and to help the university community remember. It's a job Grzelak said gets harder every year.

"We've reached that point where people were either really young or not even born. We're one of the last ones who were even alive. It makes our jobs harder in trying to connect that to the students," he said.

The scholars have been preparing for this week since the end of last year. They've researched the victims they represent, made plaques, worked on educating students and prepared for the various ceremonies to be held throughout the week.

One of those is the rose-laying ceremony, where the 35 scholars will talk about the student they represent and lay a rose to remember them by.

It's also a chance for the scholars to meet the victims' families, which is something Pfaehler is constantly thinking about, she said.

"You think about what you are going to say to someone who's lost so much. I go back to the relationship with my mother and I try to think about what I'd want someone to say to her. There's nothing I can say but, 'I remember your daughter, I remember that she was an amazing person, even though I never met her. I feel like she is the friend I never had,'" Pfaehler said.

Pfaehler and Grzelak said the bulk of the work is done. All that's left is to reflect on their role in keeping the students' memories alive.

"I look at how I would want to be remembered and I wouldn't necessarily want to be remembered with sadness, but with celebration and that's how I'm treating it with my person," Grzelak said.

But it's not just about this year's Remembrance Week, or even their time at SU. Grzelak said this experience has affected him forever.

"I'm always going to remember him, especially during December when it actually happened. Wherever I am, I'm going to share it with who I'm with," he said.

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