Today marks the 25th anniversary of my Dad’s death. He is remembered for many things in his life: as a husband to my mother, a father to me and my sister, a brother and son to the Hurst family, and a friend to many. But his life is most remembered for how it ended: alongside the 270 other people killed on Pan Am Flight 103 and in Lockerbie, Scotland as the airplane was bombed in an act of terrorism on December 21, 1988.
I was only 3 years old when my father died, so I don’t have many memories about him or from that day. I do remember sitting in our home by the Christmas tree seeing my mom crying by the phone, an unusual sight for a young boy. In a few short days we’d be flying home to St. Louis to mourn with our family, relocating to Missouri where my mom would raise me and my sister. It all happened so fast that it took years to fully understand my family’s life had changed forever.
Several years later, a memorial for the victims of Flight 103 was dedicated in Arlington Cemetery. It was the first civilian monument for a tragedy which claimed the lives more than two hundred Americans, many of whom were flying home for the holidays. By then I was already 10 years old, so I can still remember the crowds of families at the memorial service. I also remember the seating for officials and dignitaries from around the world and the television cameras pointing towards the speakers stage, where President Clinton dedicated the monument – a Scottish cairn. Each year since then I’ve seen less news coverage of the tragedy, perhaps mercifully so for the families still trying to move on with our lives, at least until recently with the turmoil in Libya.
Recently I discovered the memorial for another flight, UTA Flight 772, which was also bombed by Libyan agents in an act of terrorism in 1989 — less than a year after Lockerbie. Like our group, the victims’ families also wanted to create a memorial for the loss of their loved ones in their own tragedy. Unlike our memorial, theirs was constructed near the site of the plane crash in the African desert, using a circle of stones, broken mirrors, and a section of the airplane’s wing erected like a sun dial in the desert. It is a touching monument which evokes the memory of the flight, visible to from the sky and even from space, ensuring that others in the future who come across it will pause, learn and reflect on the tragic loss of life that day.
The memories we keep are those most strongly tied to our emotions. We try to create meaning out of these emotional memories by preserving them. On one hand this seems obvious: memorials and monuments are created to physically manifest the memory of events. What I’ve come to realize is that a family of a victim has the desire to create meaningful change through the memorialization, whether in policy or through public awareness. You can see this same motivation among the victims families from 9/11 in their work to create their own memorial and to make sure that people will “never forget” what happened, while simultaneously working to make real policy changes to protect others from the same fate. Fortunately, our own group has been able to create some meaningful memories in policy and public awareness — the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990 protects fliers by matching baggage with passengers, the memorial cairn in Arlington Cemetery to commemorate the personal losses with the public, among others.
Since learning about the related UTA flight tragedy and memorial, I’ve tried to learn more about what happened aboard Pan Am Flight 103. I have very few memories from that period, so most of what I’ve learned has come after the fact. In the process of reading reports and watching YouTube videos, I’ve found gaps in the public’s memory of the events. For example, one YouTube viewer left a comment on a video to the effect of “what a terrible accident,” obviously not knowing that the bombing was an act of terrorism. It made me appreciate why it is important to share our story, and the danger that the lessons learned from the tragedy might be forgotten. It’s important to create positive meaning from it through public changes in policy. To this day I cringe a bit when I hear people criticize airport security for being too strict, as many of the practices put into place might have been able to save the lives of those aboard the same flight as my father. None of this is to say that I would want the public to hold on to the emotional horror of this violent act, but rather remember why these policy changes were made.
Personally the death of my father is a painful memory, but it doesn’t define my life 25 years later. Inevitably, the victims of tragedy must keep moving forward in our everyday lives. To be sure, it has affected my entire family, but we honor my father’s memory every day by living our lives fully rather than living in sadness or fear. We’re not afraid to fly. I’d like to think that’s what my dad would have wanted, and I hope he’d be proud of each of us for what we’ve grown to become since he died. While my memories of him are limited, I will always love and miss my father Roger, and am able and learn more about him through memories those who also knew and loved him.