Arlington cairn will honor the victims of Pan Am Flight 103

December 21, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Less than 48 hours after he got the news, Joe Horgan was flying toward a little farming village in Scotland.

Christmas lights twinkled back home in North Wales, Pa.

Ahead, the sun was rising on the still-smoldering wreck of a U.S. jumbo jet and 270 twisted bodies.

Somewhere among them was his brother-in-law, Mike Doyle of Voorhees, Pa.

On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan American Flight 103 had been en route to New York from Frankfurt, Germany, when a bomb exploded in its baggage compartment.

Seconds later, and 31,000 feet below, the people of Lockerbie, Scotland, saw a V-shaped fireball tumbling out of the sky, then a "rain of fire" as wings and bodies and engines fell onto the houses and fields, killing 11 villagers in addition to the 259 people on board.

"Appalling . . . horrific" is how one man described the scene.

The obscure town of Lockerbie became instantly synonymous with the bombing of Pan Am 103, and the word "Lockerbie" may be linked forever with the worst of terrorism.

But to Mr. Horgan and many of the other American families -- including some in Maryland -- who lost someone in that rain of fire, Lockerbie has become more than the scene of smoldering wreckage and sheet-draped bodies.

Thanks to the "amazing kindness" and "warmth" and "giving" that the stunned townspeople somehow managed to show them during their mutual ordeal, many of the U.S. families can speak now of Lockerbie as a place of "comfort" and even "serenity" that transformed their terrible losses into enduring friendships.

And today, in groundbreaking ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, President Clinton will dedicate the site of a monument to all who died on Pan Am Flight 103.

To be built from 270 stones cut from a local quarry and donated by the people of Lockerbie, the memorial will be in the form of a traditional Scottish cairn, or stone tower.

Standing 11 feet tall, with a flat conical cap, the cairn's 270 blocks of reddish-brown sandstone will represent the passengers, crew members and townspeople who died five years ago today.

The plaque suggested by the Scots:

"In Remembrance of all victims of Lockerbie Air Disaster who died on Dec. 21, 1988"

"We've waited three years for this," Mr. Horgan said last week, sitting in his office at Horgan Bros. Construction Co. in North Wales, Pa., near Philadelphia.

Downstairs, in his warehouse, the stones have sat in eight wooden crates since 1991.

Although President George Bush had endorsed the Arlington cairn, Mr. Horgan said, officials at the cemetery repeatedly rejected the idea of a monument because the victims of Flight 103 were not military personnel.

But the Clinton administration supported the idea vigorously, according to Mr. Horgan, and overrode the objections.

"Arlington's the most appropriate place, because this was an attack on the American flag on the tail of that plane -- not the people on board," said Mr. Horgan, who wants the U.S. government to force Libya -- by any means necessary -- to turn over two bombing suspects.

Mr. Horgan believes a trial in the United States or Britain would provide healing and closure to the victims' families and could reveal involvement in the bombing by the governments of Libya, Syria or Iran.

"You can call what they did 'terrorism,' " he said, "but they were waging war on us." Arlington National Cemetery, he added, "is a place we can go and remember our loved ones."

To the families of the 189 Americans who died in the bombing, the cairn also will serve as a symbol of their abiding friendship with the people of Lockerbie.

Mr. Horgan, now 40, was the first American family member to arrive in Lockerbie after the bombing.

Scottish officials tried to shield him from scenes of horror.

But Mr. Horgan insisted instead on visiting the crater, in the neighborhood of Sherwood Crescent, where the fuselage had landed in a fireball on a row of homes, incinerating it and 11 occupants.

Soon every visiting family of the victims had a townsperson -- or an entire family -- assigned to them to provide escort and consolation, a practice that continues.

Eileen Monetti of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose 20-year-old son, Rick, was also on board, has a special place in her heart for the people of Lockerbie.

"When there weren't a lot of people you liked in the world [after the bombing], the people of Lockerbie were a beacon of light," she said. "People often think of the Scots as aloof, but they were always so kind. It would be nice if [Lockerbie] could be remembered for kindness instead of destruction. That's one of the reasons this memorial is so important."

Construction of the cairn is expected to begin as early as June, said Mr. Horgan, who yesterday loaded 10 of the 40-pound stones into his pickup truck and drove them to Arlington National Cemetery for today's ceremonies.

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