News of Nidal stirs memories of a victim Talented teen-ager died in 1973 attack on airliner

August 30, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.

Hardly a day goes by that Robert E. Ghormley does not think of his son, Mark. The boy and his trumpet back in those days at home, Chestertown. That Christmas flight 25 years ago. The "Welcome Home" sign his son never saw.

Now, Ghormley thinks about an evil stranger thousands of miles away inextricably linked to his son: the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, now in the twilight of his life, reportedly in Egypt.

One of the first acts of terrorism allegedly masterminded by Abu Nidal was the bombing attack against a Pan Am airliner at Rome airport on Dec. 17, 1973, in which 32 people burned to death. One of them was 16-year-old Robert Mark Ghormley.

Suddenly, the tragedy has hit home again.

"I certainly think they should be brought to trial. I'm in favor of the death penalty. But I harbor no hatred," said Ghormley, 64 years old, retired and living in North Fort Myers, Fla. "The hatred that was in my heart just went away. But the sorrow is still there."

Less forgiving is Mark's younger brother, William R. Ghormley, 37, of Libertytown in Frederick County: "They should execute him."

And not just Abu Nidal.

"When you find who is responsible for terrorist acts, you erase their town from the map," he said.

What about innocent bystanders? By William's accounting, they are the unfortunate victims of the terrorist battlefield, just as his brother was. "We've donated an innocent life to the cause, and where are we now?" he said. "Have we stopped any terrorists' acts?"

William keeps his brother's old trumpet in a closet. He gave Mark's Eagle Scout uniform to an Army-Navy store in Marion, Va., for display, not for sale.

And his parents hold on to things that Mark made as a child -- the night stand in their guest bedroom, a bookshelf, a footstool. Other memories are preserved: Mark's report cards, mostly A's, and awards for perfect attendance. He had not missed a day of school in five years.

For all the reminders, however, the family speaks little of Mark. "We didn't talk about my brother after he passed away," William said. "We just didn't talk about it. That's how we dealt with it.

"What can you say?"

The elder Ghormley still wonders: Why am I here? And why did this happen to my son? There are times when he cries. There is resentment still.

And guilt: To celebrate Christmas, Mark, who had stayed behind to finish high school in Chestertown, was flying to visit his family in Saudi Arabia, where his father had begun teaching remedial reading for employees of the Arabian American Oil Co.

"If I had stayed home, maybe this wouldn't have happened," said Ghormley, who had given up his job as an elementary school supervisor in Kent County to move to Saudi Arabia.

But Mark's father has learned to block "unpleasant" things from his mind. He has relied on his faith in God. The anger has subsided: "You have to get over that. If you don't, you can go crazy."

What is left is memories of Mark. Mark was tall, slender, a talented musician who was granted the first seat in the trumpet section of the Kent County High School band. He was active in the math club, the chess club, president of his youth group at Chestertown Baptist Church. He wanted to go to college, probably locally.

"He strictly took after his mother because he had the brains in the family," his father said.

William, the father of two and a management consultant in the construction industry, will always remember Mark as his older brother, four years his senior, "the smart one."

"I'm the one that got him in trouble a lot," William said. William used to hit Mark, run to his parents for protection, and Mark would retaliate and get in trouble.

But he was a good kid, and the family wonders what Mark would have done with his life. "It's hard to say," his father said. "He was only 16, but he had done a lot of things that people had not had a chance to do."

The last thing he had a chance to do was to spend the summer of 1973 in Costa Rica as a foreign exchange student. The last time his family saw him was just before he left on that adventure.

Mark stayed with a big family on a farm. The Ghormleys never met the hosts. But his father and mother, Opal, are planning a trip to see them in February.

"It is a tie to his past," Ghormley said.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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