On anniversary of Pan Am plane crash over Scotland, victim's family reflects on path they took to heal
By Craig Smith
Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 10:18 a.m.
Twenty-five years since a terrorist's bomb ripped through Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing her daughter and 269 others, Carole Johnson still cherishes the stuffed bear Beth Ann Johnson kept on her bed.
“A part of me says Beth is saying, ‘Mom and Dad, just relax.' But how can we?” said Carole Johnson, wearing the sweater her daughter left behind in London before boarding the ill-fated flight.
In the decades since Flight 103 was downed just after 7 p.m. Dec. 21, 1988, the families left behind have chosen divergent paths — some closing ranks to mourn privately, some channeling their heartbreak into action against a burgeoning community of international terrorists.
Johnson, 70, and her husband, Glenn, 71, raised two sons and immersed themselves in terrorist policy, international relations and airline security — issues foreign to them before their only daughter was killed.
Before that, the Johnsons — he was assistant manager for quality assurance at Teledyne, and she was a nurse — lived simple lives far from the international spotlight cast on them when Glenn Johnson stepped up to serve for seven years as chairman of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc., an organization formed by the families of the victims.
It was, and still is, their way of living through the grief.
The Johnsons made more than 150 trips from their Hempfield home to Washington to lobby Congress, working on policies to ensure what happened to their daughter did not happen to others.
They fought for legislation to enact the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism and helped change the law prohibiting lawsuits against foreign sovereigns, clearing the way for action against Libya. Many believe it was Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was assassinated on Oct. 20, 2011, who ordered the Pan Am bombing.
They met seven times with three presidents — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And they went to the Netherlands to attend the trial of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the bombing, who died on May 20, 2012.
“I had to get involved,” said Glenn Johnson, who still serves as treasurer of the victim's group.
“I want to keep busy ... focus on something ‘out there,' rather than ‘in here,' ” he said, pointing to his chest.
“Grief is a lifelong process,” said Robert Zucker, a grief expert from Weymouth, Mass., and author of “The Journey Through Grief and Loss.”
The pain a parent suffers when a child dies is extraordinarily different, he said.
“It's a death out of order. ... They represented hope and the future,” Zucker said. “It's the unthinkable.”
Beth Johnson, 21, a psychology major, and fellow Seton Hill University student Elyse Saraceni, 20, a piano performance major, were returning from a semester in England when a bomb hidden in a cassette recorder exploded in the plane's cargo hold, sending the 747 plummeting to earth.
Army Maj. Charles McKee, 40, of Trafford and University of Pittsburgh professor David J. Gould, 45, of Squirrel Hill also died in the attack.
The deaths of Johnson and Saraceni rocked Seton Hill, the small, close-knit Catholic college in Greensburg.
Saraceni's parents, Gene and Iva, worked as theater professors at the school and retired about a decade ago. Johnson's grandmother worked as Seton Hill's librarian. Trees planted in memory of both women grow on campus, bronze plaques honor them in Cecelian Hall, scholarships bear their names. The Saracenis donated five Steinway pianos to Seton Hill in memory of their daughter.
The Saracenis have seldom commented publicly about the attack and did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Through Seton Hill's “big sister, little sister” program that paired upperclassmen with younger students, Allegra Stasko Slick, then 22, became very close to Beth Johnson.
“It was the worst that could ever happen ... to know that my little sister had perished,” said Stasko Slick, 47, of Johnstown, a 1988 graduate. “We would send valentines to each other. How the families have survived and dealt with it is beyond me.”
For many, it was their first brush with the kind of violence that would become all-too common in the decades that followed.
“It was a loss of innocence for the community ... the evil of the world had touched the campus in a profound way,” said Curt Scheib, chair of the Division of Visual and Performing Arts who taught Elyse Saraceni.
“It was the first time I ever thought about terrorism,” said Sister Lois Sculco, vice president for Institutional Identity, Mission and Student life, who accompanied the late JoAnne Boyle, then Seton Hill's president, to the Johnson and Saraceni homes on the night of the crash.
“Iva had the staircase all decorated for Elyse's return,” she said. “We just sat there and looked at it.”
For many on campus, the emotion is still there.
There's “always a kind of stillness” when the names of the recipients of scholarships named in honor of the women are read, Sculco said.
At Pitt, Gould was an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director and founder of the International Management Development Institute.
Two years after the bombing, Gould's peers and the university began two scholarships memorializing him.
“People still talk about him. ... David is still very well-known among his former students and colleagues,” said Louis Picard, director of Pitt's Ford Institute for Human Security who knew Gould for about 10 years.
McKee was an intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency stationed in Beirut. His mother, Beulah, who died in 2003, told reporters that she thought his work might have been a factor in the bombing.
His sister, Nancy McCuean of Coraopolis, declined to comment about the anniversary.
But a poem penned by his mother shows the families' balancing act.
“Though the oceans of tears those of us cried over the years have mostly all dried ... (Dec. 21) is a date that no one must ever forget.”
But from the devastation of Pam Am Flight 103 came hope.
Seton Hill senior Megan Henderson, 21, of Columbia, Md., has been touched by both Saraceni and Johnson.
A musical theater major, she received the Elyse Jeanne Saraceni Scholarship last fall, awarded to an arts major who, like Elyse Saraceni, is a “spunky lover of life.” She works in the Seton Arts Service Corps, a program funded by the Johnsons.
“As soon as I got here, I learned about their story. ... It's so inspiring,” said Henderson, born four years after Flight 103 went down. “I feel like I could have known them. Their presence is all around.”
Some victims' families used portions of $2.7 billion in “compensation” from Libya to help others in the name of their loved ones.
“We took our dreams for Beth and opened it up to others,” Carole Johnson said of the various projects and programs she and her husband have funded.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or email@example.com.
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