25 years later, Lockerbie strikes a note of anguish with families of North Jersey victims

By Mike Kelly New Jersey Record

Rebecca Burton, who's [sic] best friend Gretchen Dater died during the bombing, kneels at a memorial to the victims at Arlington National Cemetery. Michael Karas, photo

Rebecca Burton, who’s [sic] best friend Gretchen Dater died during the bombing, kneels at a memorial to the victims at Arlington National Cemetery. Michael Karas, photo

ARLINGTON, Va. — They came to the stone memorial like old soldiers returning to a battlefield. Only these were not soldiers at all. These were the victims of terror — a quarter-century later.

More than 300 relatives and friends gathered on Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery with U.S. and British officials to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing aboard Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people — including 38 from New Jersey.

“It’s been a lifetime, but when this day comes, it brings it all back,” said Wendy Giebler Sefcik, formerly of Hasbrouck Heights, who lost her husband of 10 months in the bombing.

Until the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the midair explosion on Dec. 21, 1988, aboard the crowded jumbo jet heading to New York for the Christmas holidays with vacationers, business travelers and students had been the worst terrorist attack ever against American civilians.

The small bomb, hidden by a Libyan operative in a suitcase and detonated with a timer, sent Pan Am 103 crashing in pieces from the night sky down on the Scottish town of Lockerbie. In addition to 243 passengers and 16 crew members who perished in the crash, 11 Lockerbie residents were killed by falling debris. Among the dead were 35 students from Syracuse University, returning home from a semester of overseas studies.

The focus of Saturday’s memorial service in a parking lot near the cemetery’s Lockerbie Cairn — a monument of 270 Scottish sandstone bricks — was clearly on the victims. But American and British officials said they were pleased — albeit cautiously — that they might have a new break in the case, which so far has resulted in just one conviction of a Libyan intelligence official for a terrorist act that many believe was orchestrated by the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Two days ago, officials of the new Libyan government, which deposed Gadhafi in 2011, announced that they would welcome U.S. and British investigators to reexamine the case and view previously undisclosed records.

“If it’s true, it’s potentially a good thing for the investigation,” an FBI spokesman, Mike Kortan, said on Saturday. “It’s something we would welcome.”

Stuart Henderson, the now-retired Scottish detective who directed the initial investigation and collection of evidence in Lockerbie, said he was certain other Libyans were involved — including high-ranking officials.

“I think now, with the support of the Libyans, we can get to other rogues,” said Henderson, 74, who attended Saturday’s service in Arlington. “Now that the door is open, we can walk through it.”

In 2003, Gadhafi’s government settled a variety of lawsuits with the Pan Am 103 families by paying $2.7 billion — roughly $10 million to each family. But many feel the mere payment of money does not erase the suspicion that other Libyan officials — and perhaps operatives in Syria and Iran — were also involved and should face criminal charges.

Sefcik, who remarried and now lives in Montville, called the news about more Libyan cooperation in the criminal investigation “positive” as did Mary Kay Stratis of Montvale, who lost her husband, Elia. But neither expected a rapid end to the investigation.

“It means we’re back on the radar,” Stratis said before the service.

“It haunts me not knowing what happened,” Sefcik added. “We’ve moved on, but we haven’t forgotten.”

As in previous ceremonies each year, each victim’s name was read Saturday as the crowd sat in silence, many hugging each other or bowing their heads. After each name, a bell tolled. Hours before, a companion ceremony had been held in Westminster Abbey in London.

For Rebecca Burton, who grew up in Ramsey and now lives in Arlington where she runs a video production company, the experience brought back memories of her best friend, Gretchen Dater who perished on the flight.

“You feel Gretchen’s presence here,” Burton said. “We’re so vulnerable. The sudden shock that something like this can happen so quickly when you’re expecting your friend to come home for Christmas, it just chokes you.”

Besides the victims’ families and friends, Attorney General Eric Holder also attended with former FBI Director Robert Mueller, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and White House chief of staff Denis R. McDonough, as well as a member of the British Parliament and several British law enforcement officials.

“It has been said that time heals all wounds,” Mueller said in brief remarks. “But you here today know that is not true.”

Holder added, “We will always remember the pain that was etched into our collective memory.”

Ann McLaughlin Korologos, a former U.S. secretary of labor who directed the special presidential investigation into air safety after the Pan Am 103 attack, told the crowd that she was “here today as one of you.”

She said her close friend, Kathleen Flynn of Montville, lost a son “who I knew since he was a baby.” And a former college intern in Korologos’ office also died.

“We were naïve about the threats we faced,” Korologos said. “Today we are, sadly, smarter.”

As various speakers stepped to the microphone and later, as bagpipers from Scotland played a haunting rendition of Lockerbie Lament, young children played on the grass nearby. The scene was a reminder of how much has changed since 1988 — that young children grew up, that parents became grandparents, that widows and widowers found new spouses.

And yet, many said, much more needs to be learned about the Pan Am 103 bombing. Some blame the U.S. government for not pushing for a more aggressive investigation in the initial years after the attack.

“We were victims at every turn,” said Aphrodite Tsairis, formerly of Franklin Lakes, whose 20-year-old daughter, Alexia, was killed on Pan Am 103. “It was never easy.”

Tsairis, who became a vocal critic of the lack of progress in the investigation, did not come to Arlington. She met with other relatives in Manhattan for a special service to honor Alexia and other Syracuse University students who died.

“We were getting blindsided every which way,” said Tsairis, who now lives in Bloomingdale. “We needed to draw attention to it in some way.”

Another prominent North Jersey voice for the families, Bert Ammerman of River Vale, also did not attend Arlington’s service.

Ammerman, who lost his brother, Thomas, campaigned relentlessly for a stronger investigation and for more pressure on Libya; he did not take any of the cash settlement that was offered to the families.

On Saturday, Ammerman was vacationing in the Poconos with his grandchildren.

“I’ll be reflecting,” he said. “It never goes away. This was not a criminal attack. This was an attack on the American flag.”

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