Newhouse professors reflect on the 25th anniversary of Pan Am Flight 103

By Emily Kulkus

December 19, 2013

Several have spent considerable time in Lockerbie, Scotland documenting and remembering the tragedy

In the fall of 1988, no one would have dreamed Syracuse University would someday be intimately connected with a little town in rural Scotland. No one would have guessed that many of the university’s students and professors—including at Newhouse—could find such solace among the town’s proud people, its fluffy, wide-eyed sheep and its historic culture. No one would think that a university in Upstate New York could find such kinship, such friendship, such compassion in a community half a world away.

But that’s exactly what happened because of one of the modern world’s darkest days: Dec. 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded from a terrorist bomb, killing 259 on board—including 35 SU students—and 11 on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. That’s why one cannot fully talk about SU without talking about its sister city in sorrow: Lockerbie.

Few know that better than Newhouse professors Lawrence Mason and Melissa Chessher. Lockerbie has been a huge part of both of their lives, so much so that Mason says it is hard for him to remember life before Lockerbie. The two published a book together, “Looking for Lockerbie,” in 2008.

As the world pauses to recognize the 25th anniversary of Pan Am 103 on Saturday – services are planned at Hendricks Chapel as well as in Lockerbie, London and at Arlington National Cemetery—Mason and Chessher say they want to make sure the students’ legacies are not forgotten. 

“My fear is that people will see the 25th anniversary as an ending,” Mason says, “that it’s in the past and you don’t have to talk about it anymore.”

This image of a monument in Lockerbie, Scotland, is from Lawrence Mason's most recent photo essays commemorating the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Courtesy of Lawrence Mason

The university, with Mason’s help, is working to make sure that doesn’t happen. SU and Newhouse hosted several events commemorating the 25th anniversary, and Syracuse University Archives holds the largest collection of Pan Am 103 mementos in the world. In addition, SU annually names 35 current students as Remembrance Scholars in memory of the students killed onboard Pan Am 103, and hosts the two students from Lockerbie, known as Lockerbie Scholars, who come to campus to study.

Besides Lockerbie, no place is as connected to the tragedy as SU is.

“It’s part of the uniqueness of SU and always will be,” Mason says. “We remember Pan Am 103 more than (anyone else does.)”

Chessher has spent considerable time in Lockerbie, including one semester when she and her daughter lived there. Mason has visited 15 times in 17 years, he says. He remembers his first visit in 1996 as if it were yesterday.  

Mason goes to Lockerbie as a photographer, of course, but also in tribute to the students he knew. Mason says he taught eight of the 35 victims and has gotten to know many of their families since 1988. He says he finds beauty in forever remembering those students as youthful men and women—not the 40-somethings they would be today, perhaps with college-aged children of their own.

Chessher, who was working for an airline magazine in Dallas at the time of the bombing, says she is fortunate to have worked with Mason on the Lockerbie book. Her life, she says, has been forever touched by the experience and she recognizes that when students are selected as one of the university’s 35 Remembrance Scholars each year, it affects them forever.

“It changes them profoundly,” she says. “They take great ownership of this life, of this person who died at the same age they are now. It’s remarkable.”

Of the 805 students who have been named Remembrance Scholars since the program began in 1989 through the 2012-2013 school year, 256, or a little more than 30 percent, have been from Newhouse, says Judy O’Rourke, director of undergraduate studies and the Syracuse facilitator of the Lockerbie Scholarships.

The university’s commitment to commemorating Pan Am 103 extends all the way to Lockerbie, in the two students it brings from Scotland annually to study for one year at SU.

“Nothing guarantees the continuation of our connection with Lockerbie more than they do,” says Mason, who can tell personal stories of many of those students over the years.

“They bring great diversity to campus. All they have to do is speak up,” he says smiling, noting their memorable Scottish accents.

SU’s commitment to those scholars is a testament to the university’s respect for remembrance, he says.

“We are the memory insurance.”

A photo of the Lockerbie Memorial in Dryfesdale Cemetery in Scotland is from Mason's recent photo essays. Courtesy of Lawrence Mason

Newhouse professor Joan Deppa needs no insurance when it comes to Lockerbie. The memories are still raw, she says.

“It feels like just yesterday,” says Deppa, who was a Newhouse professor at the time and who co-authored “The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103” with three fellow Newhouse faculty members.

While working as a foreign correspondent in Paris, Deppa covered several airline hijackings, which were fairly common terrorist events during the 1970s and 1980s. As soon as she heard about Pan Am 103, Deppa says she suspected terrorism.

“You didn’t have to tell me many details,” she says. “I just knew.”

Deppa says many lessons can still be learned from Pan Am 103, including ongoing improvements to airline safety, how to handle public relations after a disaster and how the media covers tragedies.

The families of the victims of Pan Am 103 have worked tirelessly during the last 25 years to improve airline safety and bring those responsible for the bombing to justice. (Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was found guilty of mass murder in 2001 and Libya later took responsibility for the bombing. Megrahi died in 2012.) Deppa uses the Pan Am 103 families’ work in her class, she says.

“It’s proof that when bad things happen, private people can make a difference,” she says.

One such example is the Tsairis family, which established the Alexia Foundation in honor of their 20-year-old daughter, Alexia, who died in the Pan Am 103 bombing. Alexia was a photojournalism student at Newhouse. The foundation that bears her name supports photographers and “stories that drive change.”

Tsiaris was one of Mason’s students, he says. Reflecting on how much time has passed since Pan Am 103, Mason says he doesn’t know if there’s another professor on campus who taught as many Pan Am students as he did. It’s one of the reasons why looking back is still hard.

Chessher and Lawrence both say that the Tundergarth Field, where much of the plane was found, is a spiritual place.

“When you stand there you can hear a car a mile away. You can hear the raindrops hit the grass,” Mason says. “It is a powerful, magnetic, spiritual place.”

Mason and Chessher say they cannot visit Lockerbie without paying homage to SU and Newhouse’s lost students at that site.

“If it does not speak to you,” Chessher says, “you cannot be spoken to.”