A father's long fight for justice

Son's death in bombing of Pan Am flight spurs man into activist role

April 09, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Whenever George Williams feels like quitting, he pulls out an autopsy photo of his son who died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

It is a painful reminder that his decadelong mission to unravel the mystery of the terrorist attack is not over.

"I go dig that picture out and I have myself a good cry," said Williams. "Then I grit my teeth and I go on."

Williams, who lives in Harford County, is president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, an organization that represents many of the 189 American families who lost loved ones when the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground Dec. 21, 1988.

With the recent surrender of two Libyans suspected of planting the bomb on the plane, Williams said he plans to attend the trial in the Netherlands. More important than facing his son's suspected killers, he said, is discovering who was behind the bombing.

"I figure that this is the end of step one," Williams said this week at his Joppatowne home, which is decorated with pictures of his son, George W. Williams.

"Step two is coming up and that's to get at the truth. Now we want to see where it leads, because we are pretty sure that it leads to [Libyan leader Col. Muammar el] Kadafi."

It has been 10 1/2 years since Williams, 67, and his wife Judy, 68, received the news that their 24-year-old son would not be coming home for Christmas. George W. Williams, who was called Geordie by friends and family, was a first lieutenant in the Army serving in Germany.

His father vividly recalls the agony he and his wife endured as they struggled to find out whether their only son was on board the ill-fated plane.

"He called on the day he was to fly home and told his mother he missed his plane and would be taking another one," Williams recalled. "I spent hours calling Pan Am, and at one point they even told me he wasn't on the plane."

But five hours after his first frantic phone call, Williams learned that his handsome son who loved to fish and enjoyed flying helicopters for the Army was one of the seven Marylanders to perish in the crash. As friends and family flocked to the house, the couple wept for the son they had tried to conceive for 10 years. Williams' grief soon gave way to anger. That prompted him to begin working with other victims' families in a search for answers and better airplane security.

Since the bombing, Williams -- a retired postal employee and real estate agent -- has met with dozens of politicians, worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to enact better regulations and served on the Presidential Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. As the years ticked by, he has continually pushed Congress to stay on top of the investigation and maintain sanctions against Libya.

"When I heard of the turnover of the two suspects, George was one of the first people I called," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said this week. "He deserves a large part of the credit for the progress that has been made."

FAA officials recently released a report detailing improvements in airport security since the bombing. Those measures include better baggage inspections, employee background checks, more scrutiny of passenger identification and an assessment of the vulnerability of major United States airports.

But for the families of Pan Am Flight 103 victims, those changes have come too late.

One person who can relate to Williams' struggle is Harford County Attorney Frank Carven, who lost his sister Paula and her 9-year-old son, Jay, in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island Sound in July 1996. Carven is vice president and a director of the Families of TWA Flight 800, and has worked with Williams' group.

"You really can't comprehend the sense of loss," said Carven, who lives in Bel Air. "I've seen a full spectrum of people from those like George and myself who try to work and change things, to people who still can't even talk about it. Everybody addresses loss in a different way."

Williams said he will keep working until he gets justice, knowing that even that won't truly bring relief to victims' families.

"We take our jobs in the organization seriously because we just don't want any more members," Williams said.

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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