Back on Dec. 21 of 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, we didn’t really have much of a concept of what terrorism was. But the lessons of that day, unheeded to large degree along with the pain it inflicted on the families of the 270 people who died, are perhaps more important now than ever.
The documentary film “Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103,” which will have its East Coast premiere at the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival this Sunday, Dec. 6, takes on the weight of the grieving families who are still left without closure nearly 27 years after the bombing.
Los Angeles-based television news producer and former Reuters reporter Phil Furey, who makes his feature-length directorial debut with this film, found the germ of this story after meeting Montauk sculptor Suse Lowenstein and her husband Peter. Their son, Alexander, was killed on the transatlantic flight while coming home for Christmas from a semester abroad.
Alexander was one of 35 Syracuse University students killed on Pan Am Flight 103.
The film follows three pairs of grieving parents from the initial shock of learning of their children’s death, through the long-delayed trials of the two bombing suspects and the parents’ agony at the Scottish government’s decision to let the one man convicted of the bombing, Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, go home to die of prostate cancer after serving eight years in jail.
Al-Megrahi lived for nearly three years after he returned home, and is believed by many to have been exchanged by the Scots at the urging of the British government for British Petroleum’s lucrative contract to drill for oil in Libya, not because he was on his deathbed, as families of the bombing victims were told at the time.
For the families of those who died, the global political wrangling surrounding their very personal grief has never gotten easier to stomach, and the appeasement by American and British leaders of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has always been about one thing: Libya’s vast oil reserves. Their children, they say, were just caught in the crossfire of a geopolitical quagmire that had nothing to do with them.
In the film, Ms. Lowenstein recounts how she was told to go to the livestock quarantine area at JFK airport to retrieve her son’s remains. She said no one from the U.S. government or from Pan Am was there to meet the families as the coffins were unloaded off the back of a graffiti-covered box truck into the arms of the waiting relatives.
When those coffins had left Scotland, she said, they were given a proper send-off.
“The coffins left Lockerbie with the dignity they deserved, and they arrived like garbage,” she said.
Ms. Lowenstein would later respond to the pain of Alexander’s death by sculpting other people who lost loved ones, captured in the moment they’d learned the news that their loved one had perished.
“Many of the mothers were protecting their middle,” she said, as if they were experiencing the pain of birthing their children and of knowing they’d died all at once. She has since dedicated the sculpture to all victims of terrorism.
Another parent, Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora, said that untrained counselors from Pan Am began calling the families of victims looking to dig up dirt on the family dynamics, drug use or sexual proclivities of those who died, as if they were searching for any crumbs to reduce their liability for their deaths.
She and her husband Daniel have found new pain in nearly every development in the handling of the families by Pan Am and the United States, of the trial and release of the convicted bomber and in American normalization of relations with Libya. Only the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of his own people in 2011 seemed to give here comfort.
“That was a gift from the Libyan people” to the families of those who died in Lockerbie, she said.
Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis, whose daughter Alexia, a budding photographer, was also one of the Syracuse students to die that day, responded by creating a foundation to help photographers tell stories that need to be told.
For Ms. Tsairis, who was one of the strongest voices among the families looking to force a trial of the bombers, the pain has changed form over the years.
“I don’t miss crying so much,” she said. “I miss not dreaming about her.”
“Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103” will be the closing night film at the Hamptons Take Two Documentary Film Festival this Sunday evening, Dec. 6 at 7:15 p.m. The screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with director Phil Furey.
The full schedule of films at the festival is online here and more information about “Since: The Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103” is online here. Tickets are $15 per film and are available at the Bay Street Theatre box office.