Legacy of a Grim Christmas Past

updated 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the year since her husband, John, was killed when a terrorist bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Vicky Cummock has grappled with many difficult questions. Like the time her son Christopher, 7, wanted to know, "Mommy, when Daddy finishes dying, will he come back to us?" Or the time at breakfast when her other son, Matthew, 5, asked for a gun. "A squirt gun?" she said. "A real gun," he replied. "Then we could shoot ourselves and be with Daddy." Even daughter Ashley, who turned 4 last week, inquires, "When are you going to die, Mommy? When are we going to die?"

The answers, such as they are, offer little in the way of comfort. "This happened four days before Christmas," says Vicky, 36, "and I have three kids who still believe in Santa Claus."

Even in a world that has grown accustomed to terrorist outrages, it was a horrific crime: Two hundred and fifty-nine people, 189 of them Americans, snuffed out in a flash in the night sky 38 minutes after takeoff from London en route to New York. Another 11 died on the ground when debris from the plane crashed on the village of 3,000 people. With the approach of the Dec. 21 anniversary of the crash, the families of the victims are bracing themselves for a harrowing emotional replay. So Vicky Cummock has decided that she will pack up her kids and leave their home in Coral Gables, Fla., fleeing to a rented condominium at a ski resort. Yet she knows that what happened a year ago cannot be buried and that a crushing melancholy will hang like a cloud over her holidays. "I'd like to crawl under a rock," she says, "and wake up on Jan. 15."

As it is, Vicky and other relatives of those who died on Pan Am 103 have spent much of the past year insisting that those deaths not be forgotten. Like avenging angels, they have organized a zealous lobbying campaign designed to bring pressure on both Washington, D.C., and the airline industry. As they see it, their loved ones were killed unnecessarily, victims of lax airline security, mishandled intelligence and "selective notification" that warned only a few travelers—virtually all of them U.S. government employees—of the potential risk of getting aboard the fatal flight. Experts have endorsed many of their proposed remedies while treating others more skeptically (see box, page 64). The Lockerbie families remain adamant that unless sweeping changes are made, many more Americans will be killed by air terrorists.

A former fashion model, Cummock has emerged as a leader of the Lockerbie movement. After her initial inquiries about the disaster, she says, one Congressman "told me to go back to Coral Gables and bake bread." Instead she turned up the heat. Perhaps her finest hour came last September at a Republican Party dinner in Washington. President Bush had just finished making a speech when Vicky audaciously unhooked a velvet rope meant to cordon off the gallery, strode up to the President and insisted that he take greater action. She urged him to make good on a promise to appoint a panel immediately to investigate the bombing and come up with ways to deter future attacks. "Not knowing protocol," she says, "I've done things people don't do." Two weeks later, Bush named the members of the Presidential Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, which held its first public hearing last month.

But her bitterness over Washington's response to the Lockerbie bombing lingers—so much so that at times she sounds more forgiving toward the terrorists who planted the explosives than toward the government bureaucrats investigating the incident. "The people responsible should be brought to justice," she says. "But I have no ill will toward anybody. I feel sorry for them. I can remember John telling me at the time of the 1985 TWA hijacking, 'They're really to be pitied. They were probably born into a fanatical family in a fanatical world.' Sure I'm angry. They got away with murder. But being vindictive would eat me alive."

Just who did sabotage Pan Am 103? With officials refusing to release much information about the course of their inquiries, it has been left to security experts and the press to conjure up possible scenarios. Several aspects of the case, though, are clear. First, it is widely believed that the bombing was carried out in retaliation for the July 1988 downing of an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes, which killed all 290 people on board. Within weeks of that incident, according to news accounts, Iranian officials offered as much as $10 million to a Syria-based terrorist leader named Ahmed Jibril as a bounty for blowing up an American jetliner.

Though he publicly denies any involvement, Jibril's fingerprints appear to be all over the Lockerbie bombing. At least two months before the destruction of Pan Am 103, Western intelligence agencies had reason to suspect that a terrorist attack might be imminent. U.S. authorities began picking up hints of a plot through surveillance and communication intercepts soon after the Vincennes incident. Then in October, West German police, acting on a tip from Israeli intelligence, raided several terrorist safe houses. Among those taken into custody was a Palestinian, Hafez Kassem Dalkamoni, one of Jibril's top lieutenants. In Dalkamoni's car, police found a Toshiba cassette recorder loaded with Semtex, a Czech-made plastic explosive, and rigged with a barometric trigger, precisely the sort of device that would be used to blow up a plane.

Finally, 16 days before the bombing, the American Embassy in Helsinki received a telephone warning that a Pan Am jet flying from Frankfurt to the United States would be targeted in the next two weeks. Notified of the call, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted an alert for the embassy staff. That advisory, say Cum-mock and other members of the Lockerbie families, allowed diplomats and their dependents to avoid the flight but was never given to other potential passengers. State Department officials concede the notice was posted, but only inadvertently.

Whatever the case, just how a Toshiba recorder packed with Semtex got on board Pan Am 103 remains unclear. Dalkamoni, who is still in West German custody, could not have planted the bomb himself. One theory suggests that other suspected terrorists, including a Palestinian named Abu Talb, may have placed it as cargo aboard a plane in Malta and that it was eventually checked onto Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt. Another theory holds that Talb was perhaps responsible for a concealed bomb given to an unsuspecting Arab-American visiting in Frankfurt, with a request to take the package to the U.S. According to ABC News, the student, Khalid Jaafar, 20, who was flying home to his family in Detroit, brought the package onto Flight 103 in Frankfurt, where Pam Am security was allegedly loose. (Pan Am insists there were no significant lapses in safety measures.) Last week, Swedish authorities agreed to allow Scottish investigators to question Talb in Sweden, where he has been detained for several months.

John Cummock, a 38-year-old vice president with the Miami-based Bacardi Foods Group, had been in London on a business trip. Eager to get home early for the holidays, he sprinted through Heathrow airport on the evening of Dec. 21 and boarded Pan Am 103 just as the doors were closing. The plane should have already left but had been delayed 25 minutes. As the Boeing 747 cruised past 30,000 feet, the bomb in the forward cargo hold detonated, scattering bodies and debris over 850 square miles of the Scottish countryside.

Back in Coral Gables, Vicky heard about the disaster but wasn't alarmed. John hadn't told her what flight he would be on, and there were plenty of planes out of London. That night, though, John's boss, Eddie Sardifña, rang Vicky's doorbell with ominous news: Other Bacardi staffers who had seen John to the airport believed he had boarded Pan Am 103. Suddenly frantic, Vicky turned on the television to watch the news coverage and saw the airline's emergency information number. She repeatedly dialed and redialed, but the line was busy. Finally, after more than an hour, she got through and was told that John's name was on the manifest.

For a while time seemed to stop. Over the next few months Vicky would often stay up all night, phoning friends to talk at 3 A.M., heedless of the hour. In her loneliness, she would relive each moment of her life with John. He had been raised in Utah and California and had graduated from Brigham Young University. Vicky had been born in Peru to an American mother and a Peruvian diplomat father. She had attended the University of Connecticut, then modeled for the Ford and Wilhelmina agencies in New York. She and John had met while both were working for Chesebrough-Pond's in Connecticut. They married in 1980, and four years later John was offered the job at Bacardi. After the family moved to Florida, Vicky established a thriving interior design business.

Now that joyful life had been shattered. "I couldn't believe I was a widow," says Vicky. "Those are little old ladies with blue hair on Miami Beach." Despite the support of friends and family, nothing could relieve Vicky of the troubling feeling that somehow John's death could have been prevented. "To find out it wasn't an accident was a blow," she says. "To find out there was a warning was another blow. It went from a tragedy to a nightmare."

She was also outraged by the shoddy treatment she felt she had received from both Pan Am and the State Department. She had difficulty, for instance, finding out how to forward John's medical and dental records to Lockerbie so that his body could be identified, and how to go about having his remains shipped back home. Six months after the disaster, during a phone conversation with police in Scotland, she learned that most of the contents of John's attaché case were still there and that she was welcome to them. The State Department had told her that the case had been destroyed in the crash. Neither State nor Pan Am would deliver the condolence notes she wrote to the families of each of the other victims. "I was just stunned at the lack of humane treatment that I received," she says. "All the families found out there was no one to give us direction." (Last week a State Department spokesperson told PEOPLE that at the time of the bombing, "we did our best" to respond to the next of kin. "If we had it to do over again, there are a lot of things we'd do differently," he said. For its part, Pam Am calls the charges "unfair" and insists the airline reacted with "warmth and compassion.")

Thrown back on their own resources, many of the families have learned not only how to cope but also how to crusade. "Nothing is going to bring John back," says Vicky. "But at least I'll know he didn't die in vain. The least we can do is ensure that everything will be done to see that this doesn't happen again." She has virtually abandoned her business—"It's very hard to be interested in wallpaper when your husband has been blown away"—and devotes herself full-time to lobbying government officials and legislators and testifying before various congressional committees. All told, Vicky estimates that she has made more than 30 trips to Washington and spent some $22,000 of her own money to press her case. Among her goals is passage of a bill now before Congress that would require more effective public notification of bomb threats that the government believes are real. In addition, she wants to see major international airports around the world equipped with detection devices known as thermal neutron analysis units, which can pick up traces of plastic explosives, including Semtex.

For some victims' families, the distractions of activism have been a mixed blessing. Glenn and Carole Johnson of Greensburg, Pa., lost their daughter Beth Ann, 21, on Pan Am 103 and have since seen their close-knit family divided over the question of how to deal with the tragedy. Glenn, 47, and Carole, 45, have become highly outspoken advocates of improved airline security, and Glenn, as executive vice president of a group known as Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, frequently travels around the country to brief other families and to buttonhole senators. The Johnsons' two grown sons, on the other hand, have at times questioned the wisdom of their parents' crusade, believing that the time has come to get on with their lives. "They refuse to talk about the bombing," says Glenn. "They have criticized us for continuing to be involved in lobbying. They want us to just forget it."

There is no unanimity among other crash victims' families either. When Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 was founded, two months after the bombing, two of the prime movers were Paul Hudson, 42, an Albany, N.Y., attorney whose 16-year-old daughter, Melina, was killed, and Bert Ammerman, 42, assistant principal of a New Jersey high school, who lost his brother Tom, 36. Although they were in general agreement concerning the group's aims, they differed on questions of tactics. By and large, Hudson advocated a tough stance against government officials, while Ammerman argued for a milder approach.

By September, tensions had become so great that Hudson and other members, including Vicky Cummock, broke away to form their own group, Families of Pan Am 103/Lockerbie. Ammerman says that Hudson has only about 20 families, compared with his 130; Hudson contends he has 125. "We're not able to work together," says Hudson. "But what we are able to do is to be effective independently much better than we could if we were one group with a lot of internal dissension and turmoil."

For Vicky Cummock, the nights are becoming easier now, and she usually manages to sleep through until morning. She works out at a local gym three to five times a week and goes out with friends when she can. She even began dating last June. "The first time, I felt I was cheating on John," she says, but the experience has proved therapeutic. "I need to talk to adults as an individual, not just as a grieving person," she explains. Mostly, though, she tries to spend all her spare time with the kids, with whom she frequently discusses their father. "We talk about him as an integral part of the family," she says.

Happily, she sees signs that the children are beginning to rally. "They don't have that sense of panic anymore," she says. "There is anxiety, but they've learned how to deal with it." Not that their feeling of loss has become less profound. At first, Christopher didn't want to ride his bicycle without training wheels because his father wasn't there to help him. And when Matthew went out for the soccer team this year, he felt almost lost. "If I had a dad, he'd tell me what to do," he complained.

Vicky sometimes feels the same way. "I've got to find my own way," she says. "And I don't know what that is." After the first of the year, when Bacardi will stop paying John's salary, she will have to decide whether she and the children can afford to remain in their six-bedroom house. She doesn't plan to look for a job just yet. Her lobbying will continue, however; she is determined to make sure that the work of the presidential commission turns out to be more than a hollow bureaucratic exercise. At some point, she plans to sue Pan Am. But she realizes that she must not allow herself to be consumed by the past and her anger. "I can't in good conscience let this take over my life and become an obsession," she says. "I don't want to be remembered as a victim."

—Bill Hewitt, Don Sider in Coral Gables, Jonathan Cooper in London and bureau reports

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