A bond within the wreckage
How Syracuse and Lockerbie became forever intertwined


Lockerbie Lockerbie


Syracuse Syracuse

Note: This is a multi-part experience exploring two cities forever connected by grief.

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It was an act of terror meant to serve as retaliation against the United States for a targeted strike two years prior during Operation El Durado Canyon. It wasn't meant to hit anyone specific, just to build fear and show that Libya wasn't afraid to fight back against the superpower nations.

But when the bomb went off and Pan Am 103 fell from the sky, it changed the lives of people across the world. And when the dust settled in Lockerbie, what remained were the people left behind.

Suddenly, two formally unconnected groups of people became forever linked. The attack did not target Syracuse University or Lockerbie. The terrorists held no grudge against a private college housed in a central New York city, nor a sleepy little town sitting in the hills of southern Scotland.

But in the aftermath of this horrifying event, Syracuse became a campus filled with reminders of 35 students who didn't make it home for Christmas and Lockerbie became synonymous with tragedy.

But somewhere amidst the sadness and mourning, these two distinct places came together to heal. This is the story of a bond between a college campus and a quiet community and how the two have remained close for a quarter-century, providing each another comfort regarding a subject that is so frequently met by sorrow.

The Aftermath

Lawrence Mason was sitting at home wrapping Christmas presents on December 21, 1988. A photography professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, Mason had just finished his grading for the semester and was settling in for the holiday break. The sound of his ringing telephone cut through the cheery cords of holiday tunes.

His boss at United Press International was on the other end and Mason assumed it would be a simple call, filled with holiday greetings. Instead, this exchange changed Mason's life forever.

"He said, have you heard about the plane bombing," Mason said. "And I said no, I don't have the TV on."

At that point, Mason's boss told him that there were reports of a plane crash over southern Scotland. Reports were still early, but supposedly as many as 40 Syracuse University students were rumored to be on the plane. Even though the Syracuse University casualties weren't yet confirmed, there was a vigil taking place that night in Hendricks Chapel. Mason's boss wanted him to cover it.

"And I told him I couldn't," Mason said. "He asked why not and I said, If there were 40 students on that plane, and I teach one-fifth of the student body here at Syracuse, that means eight of my students are gone. I should be mourning too, not covering it."

Mason went to the Carrier Dome that night to cover a Syracuse basketball game for UPI. Today he is unable to identify Syracuse's opposing team or the final score of that game. He can't even remember if Syracuse won that night. But he will never forgot what it was like to be among thousands of Syracuse supporters.

"The Dome was like a tomb that night," Mason said. "No one felt like celebrating. But everyone felt like they just had to go do something to get their minds off the disaster."

Lawrence Mason
Syracuse University

Mason's friend left the Carrier Dome early to cover the vigil he had turned down. Mason remembers it was not long before he saw his friend heading back into the basketball game.

"I asked him why he was back so soon," Mason said. "And he said he couldn't stay. The media was put right up front in the vigil, pointed back towards the students who were gathering there. He raised up his camera and focused on one girl in the crowd and she was crying.

"And in that moment, she looked up at him and they locked eyes. He said she looked at him like 'Why are you doing this to me?' and he couldn't shoot one single frame."

It was a photo from that night at the basketball game that became the image seen around the world. A student from one of Mason's classes was a cheerleader for the Orange. She came up to him and said she believed two of her sorority sisters were on the plane. At that point, she began to cry.

Mason said another cheerleader came over and embraced her. His colleague caught this moment in time and it quickly became the cover image for stories about the bombing all over the world. More than any photos from the vigil, this picture was used to convey the sadness that gripped the campus.

Mason said he believed this was because cheerleaders were supposed to be the face of happiness and spirit of the campus. He talked to the woman later and asked how she felt about the photo.

"She said that at first she was upset about the photo," Mason said. "But slowly she realized how important it was."


Mason finally decided to make the trip to Lockerbie eight years after the bombing. He and several photography students took a trip to the town to visit the memorial sites and capture pictures of Lockerbie almost a decade after the crash.

Mason remembers being led on a tour of all the Pan Am spots throughout the town by guides who were well acquainted with the events of that night. The tour was ironically dubbed "The Sunshine Tour," something Mason dubbed as gallows humor. The tour led the group all around Lockerbie, showing spots where the nose cone fell and where memorials had become rooted in the ground.

The last stop on the tour was the memorial for all the victims. Mason said there was not a dry eye among his group as they looked at the memorial and realized the loss. To them, the memories of the Pan Am crash and its victims were just as fresh as they were eight years before. But to Mason, the reactions of the Lockerbie tour leaders were even more powerful than the memorial itself.

He remembers looking over at the tour guides and being shocked to see they were off to the side of the group laughing to themselves.

"I thought, wow that just doesn't seem right," Mason said. "They shouldn't be laughing here."

But then, he realized something.

"For us, it was our first time experiencing this," he went on. "But they had dealt with Pan Am 103 and the aftermath for eight straight years. Every day. You have to find a way to smile again someday."

After that day, Mason said he has looked for any excuse he can get to return to Lockerbie and its people.

"It has helped me heal," Mason said.

Lockerbie wore its Christmas colors with pride in 1988 -- its Christmas trees up, colorful lights twinkling against the snow, holiday cards written and sent. But by Christmas Day, four days after the bombing of Flight Pan Am 103 shook the town, the lights were packed up. The trees were taken down. There was nothing left to celebrate.

For 10 long years, Lockerbie marked the Christmas season with a lone Christmas tree and darkness. But, in 1998, a decade after the tragedy that cast an inescapable shadow over the town's holiday season, the Let's Light Up Lockerbie public campaign brought lights back to the city center of the small Scottish town.

Let's Light Up Lockerbie, aided by a trust fund established since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 shocked the community, raised more than 19,000 British pounds to string lights throughout the city. Mason said the reason the lights switched back on in 1998 was because Lockerbie's citizens wished for their children to celebrate a proper Christmas.

church glass
Stained Glass in a Lockerbie Church

The town had also fallen into dire need of new lights after 10 years of near neglect. During December of 1998, Lockerbie resident Marjory McQueen told The Associated Press, "The media has got a hold of this, that the lights are being switched on again in Lockerbie after 10 years. Well, we never had any."

Around the time the lights first began to twinkle again in Lockerbie, Syracuse newspaper reporter Sean Kirst was preparing to travel to Lockerbie for the very first time. Kirst had been a Post-Standard reporter at the time to plane crashed, but he was new to the team and in a bureau tucked away in Upstate New York, meaning he had less involvement in the initial coverage of the disaster beyond simply watching it unfold.

Sean Kirst
The Post-Standard

Kirst had watched for a decade as Syracuse reporters tried to bring new information to the Pan Am story and honor the victims with thoughtful pieces on each anniversary. His assignment was on the 10th anniversary was to figure out why so many families would continue to go back to Lockerbie year after year.

Before heading over to Lockerbie, he spoke with Marianne Alderman, a woman who lost her daughter in the crash. She visited the Scottish town so often and loved it so much she ended up getting remarried there.

As Kirst traveled around Lockerbie, he was struck by the compassion the townspeople showed to anyone from Syracuse.

"The people of Lockerbie took care of the memorials left by family members while they were gone," Kirst said. "They would give you flowers and take care of you."

He described Lockerbie as a haunting place that lost much of its legacy the minute Pan Am 103 crashed into its hills. When people heard the town's name, they could only associate it with the tragedy.

During the holiday season of 2001, just months since the United States buckled against an act of terrorism of its own, Melissa Chessher, chair of the magazine department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, arrived in the dark, cold heart of wintertime in Lockerbie.

Melissa Chessher
Melissa Chessher
Associate professor
Syracuse University

But for the shadow cast over the Scottish sandstone town 13 years before, she found a Lockerbie that seemed almost physically unmarred by this tragedy.

"To drive those roads and stand in those fields today, you really would have no idea what went before," Chessher said.

"It's such a majestic and beautiful, and almost spiritual in the place where the nose cone went down."

Chessher's firsthand exploration of the field where Pan Am Flight 103 fell was quintessentially Scottish. She described the weather as "blowy" -- marked by scattershot gusts of wind and clouds sweeping across a sky pockmarked by rays of sunshine -- while at the same time, a deeply visceral experience.

She called the town undeniably adorable and charming, and the stories she found there -- a nightly class where Lockerbie men fashion walking sticks out of sheep's horns and wood, an iconoclastic milkman bringing glass bottles to citizens' doorsteps in the early hours of the morning, hillwalkers who spend their days scaling Scottish hills -- are something that could've come from an earlier time.

"There's a lot of ways that community could have responded to such a horrible crime against humanity," she said. "And to me, that they've responded with such kindness and openness and a sense of caretaking in terms of the families and memories of those who were lost.

"It's just inspiring."

Remembrance Efforts

During the summer of 2013 -- the year she found out she'd take up the mantle of a Remembrance Scholar -- Emily Pompelia vacationed abroad in the British Isles. The senior newspaper and online journalism, policy studies, and German triple major followed the advice of professor John Mercer, who convinced her to spend some time in Lockerbie during her jaunt through Scotland.

So Pompelia mapped Scotland on Google, found she'd be close enough to the town, and made plans to visit.

Pompelia explored Lockerbie, guided by 2012-2013 Lockerbie scholar Claire Dorrance, over the course of a single day.

"Lockerbie is such a beautiful town, and Scottish hospitality has a reputation for a reason," she said. "The people there are unbelievably welcoming. But the town already has a reputation written for it."

Remembrance Scholar
Emily Pompelia
Remembrance Scholar
Syracuse University

Pompelia said the sad fact about experiencing Lockerbie firsthand is that it's difficult to untie the town from the tragedy. Visiting the milieus marked by tragedy -- the pasture where the nose cone fell and the memorials -- made Pompelia feel the smallest she's ever felt.

"When you're staring at that field with your own two eyes and not through a lens, or through a computer screen, or on a newspaper, it becomes a lot more real," she said.

Pompelia found herself in kind of a strange spot as a Remembrance scholar, unable to remember the tragedy from personal recollection: she was born years after news of Pan Am Flight 103 shocked the world.

But her Lockerbie trip, along with her Remembrance scholarship, help keep things in perspective.

"Sometimes, I feel really far from it," she says. "But most of the times I do feel really connected to it."

During 2013's Remembrance Week, Pompelia's ties to Lockerbie strengthened when she met the parents of Jason Coker -- the victim of the tragedy who Pompelia represents -- while standing with her own parents.

Because the week marked the 25th anniversary of the flight, she said the proximity the Remembrance Scholars shared with the parents of the victims who were able to make the trek to Syracuse made the tragedy more real, and it's a bond she hopes remains forged for decades to come.

"Fifty years from now, I certainly hope that the Remembrance Scholarship is still very much alive on this campus," Pompelia said. "But I wonder how those students will connect."

Remembrance Wall

Both Kirst and Mason talked about the effort Syracuse University has gone through to preserve the memories of those students who perished 25 years ago. Through these efforts, Mason has watched the campus become a beacon for not only the relatives of those students who died but also the relatives of all victims of Pan Am 103.

While he realizes he is one of only a few current professors who were at Syracuse at the time of the bombing, he hopes that students and faculty alike will continue to feel the weight of those students' lives and honor them in the coming years with as much reverence as has been shown in the past.

Kirst talked about the effort SU's Pan Am Archives has gone through to make sure there is a lasting memory of the events for decades of students to come. Time can make memories fade, but the archives allow students who were not even born at the time of the bombing to relive those days and understand their importance to both the campus and the world.


Produced by Matt Hartley, Melanie Lustig, Kaitlyn Richards and Erik van Rheenen.

Photos courtesy of Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archive, SU Photo & imaging Center and Emily Pompelia.