On December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103, a Boeing 747-100 carrying 259 passengers and crew from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York City’s JFK Airport was bombed over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 onboard and 11 people on the ground were tragically killed by this heinous act of terror. 35 of those passengers were Syracuse University students who were going home for the holidays after a semester abroad in Europe. When I confirmed my travel plans to visit the United Kingdom prior to my study abroad semester in Denmark, I knew I had to make the effort to visit Lockerbie. I’ve heard many stories about the town’s hospitality in welcoming people from Syracuse University and I felt like it would also be a personal pilgrimage as an SU student to pay my respects to all of those who perished and journey to the place where it all happened.
Journey to Lockerbie, Scotland
My day started early at 2AM. I was staying with my cousin and her husband who lives right outside of Swindon, England, a small city about an hour away from Oxford and Bristol. Since Christina arrived the night before, I took a 2-hour bus ride back to London-Heathrow Airport. Appropriately enough, this was where the 259 passengers onboard Pan Am 103 started their journey and it felt surreal and eerie to somewhat retrace their journey.
After meeting up with Christina in London, we boarded a 4-hour train ride that traversed more than a third of the length of the entire country of England, crossing the border to Scotland. The ride was smooth and gave way to a spectacular view of the English and Scottish countryside, which gradually became greener and greener the further we zoomed away from London but at one point, was covered in thick snow. Throughout the journey, I kept looking up in the dark and gloomy winter sky and imagined the Boeing 747 flying overhead 29 years ago, ascending to its cruising altitude, with all passengers and crew onboard completely unaware of what was going to happen.
It was dark and overcast when our train finally stopped in Lockerbie. The station was simple and unassuming, which reminded me a lot of the secondary train stops in New Jersey or Long Island where the only trains that stop are the local ones, largely skipped by the faster express service. We quickly searched up how to get to our hotel nearby, which seemed easy enough considering the size of the town. It quickly became apparent how small Lockerbie is. On the other side of the train station are a few rows of houses under a small hill that were home to dozens of sheep, on the other side is the main area of the town. There was a sizable parking lot and a narrow winding road that leads to the main street. The main street snakes around the entire length of town that was probably no more than a mile long. After figuring which direction to go, we hauled our luggage up the cobbled stoned streets and around the corner. At the edge of the block was Townsend Hotel, one of the handful lodging options in the town center. We were warmly welcomed by the hotel staff who advised us to get a drink and settle down for some lunch since our room was still being cleaned.
The town’s hospitality became clear, especially after learning that Christina and I are both Syracuse University students, which is honestly not that difficult to figure out. Like any valiant ‘Cuse student would, we sported our best Orange gear to show our school spirit. Our waitress told us that her neighbor a couple years ago was one of the two Lockerbie scholars that went to Syracuse for the year and told us that she absolutely loved it. Unsurprisingly, everyone in this town knows each other. Their hospitality feels different than what I’ve experienced in most places before. I didn’t feel like I was just another guest in a hotel, but I had this profound feeling that I’ve already met these people before and we were just meeting once again, like a long lost family member who has moved to a faraway place. It felt rather cozy, warm, and comforting. That feeling once again reinforced the sheer magnitude of this tragedy that fell upon this small town. Everyone knows each other, and everyone treated each other like a close family member, so each life loss was literally everyone else’s pain.
Tour of Lockerbie and the Pan Am 103 Memorial
After sleeping for 12 hours in response to the inconvenient and unavoidable case of jetlag, we went downstairs to eat breakfast and to get an early head start for the day. Despite mistaking the breakfast call an hour earlier than it was supposed to be, our waitress warmly welcomed us to the breakfast room and offered us tea and coffee. Our warm order of a full Scottish breakfast was promptly delivered. And then, our conversation lead us to talk about Pan Am. We asked her how far the Garden of Remembrance was and the best way to get there. She said that it was a little over a mile away, right outside of town, where the local cemetery was located. Without hesitation and even asking her, she offered to drive us to the Garden immediately after breakfast despite being in the middle of her shift. She grabbed her jacket and car keys, took us to the parking lot behind the hotel, and enthusiastically started describing the town which she clearly was very proud of. I grabbed the front seat, which in this case, felt weird because Scotland, like England, drives on the opposite side of the road. She said she was only seven when it happened and recalls her mother covering her head with her jacket as they surveyed the area near the crash site. They were bodies being recovered from the wreckage. She doesn’t remember much of it and told us that there is a whole new generation of Lockerbie residents that were born after it and have only heard stories about the crash.
After a quick five-minute drive, which afforded us a closer look of the town, we arrived at the local cemetery where the Garden of Remembrance was located. The memorial is about another three-minute walk from the gate but as we were about to exit the car, she immediately got out, opened the gate, and told us to stay put so she can drive us exactly in front of the memorial. We were then offered to get picked up anytime we wanted but politely declined the kind gesture so we could walk back to town and see more of it on foot. She said if we ever changed our minds, to give the hotel a call and she would be there in a few minutes.
There were several epitaphs that lay on the ground that surrounds the memorial, dedicated to the passengers lost on the flight. In the middle is a rectangular patch of grass, plants, and flowers, resembling the one in front of the Hall of Languages on the Syracuse University campus. On the far end is a giant wall with all the names of the 259 passengers onboard Pan Am 103 and the 11 Lockerbie residents. Since we visited only a few days after the 29th anniversary of the crash, there were dozens of fresh flowers laid in front of it, including one that was arranged to look like a Boeing 747.
As a Syracuse University student, it was incredibly meaningful to visit Lockerbie. As I stood in front of all the names of the passengers onboard Pan Am 103, I could not fathom the amount of pain, grief, and sadness that this tragedy brought. When I saw those 35 empty seats during Remembrance Week laid on the Quad at Syracuse, I could not help but think that any of those students could be my best friend, my roommate, my fraternity brother, or myself. And when I realized how small and incredibly close-knit this town actually is, I could not help but think about the overwhelming loss, shock, and confusion that they must have felt. There were 259 passengers onboard the flight and 11 on the ground that perished, but I thought about how each and single one of those people had friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, students, and everyone else who are connected to them and who mattered to them. And then suddenly, that number become thousands. And I thought about how everyone on this flight came from different parts of the United States and different parts of the world and then suddenly, it becomes more than just London, Lockerbie, New York, or Syracuse. With all of this said, I realized something: tragedy brings out profound connections. Despite being thousands of miles away, Syracuse and Lockerbie, two unassuming towns with seemingly no connection whatsoever, will always have this unbreakable bond. I felt this bond from the moment I stepped out of the train and felt it even further when we were warmly welcomed by the residents and told us their stories. It was Washington Irving who once said: “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”