Jeannine Boulanger had all the Christmas presents wrapped and under the tree. She had baked and cleaned. It was Dec. 21, 1988, and she and her husband, Ronald, were all set to head out from their Shrewsbury home to pick up their daughter Nicole at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Nicole was 21, a musical-theater major at Syracuse University returning home after a semester in London.
In Old Lyme, Conn., John and Doris Cory were preparing to meet their son Scott, a 20-year-old management major at Syracuse, when they heard the news that Pan Am Flight 103 had gone down over Scotland. Frantic, they called the US State Department for information. They were put on hold while music played: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
A quarter century later, that discordant detail still rankles John Cory.
His son and Nicole Boulanger were among the 259 aboard the Boeing 747 bound for New York when it was blown up by a bomb and crashed, killing all the passengers and crew and 11 residents on the ground in Lockerbie, Scotland. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on American civilians until Sept. 11, 2001. Only one suspect has been convicted, though investigators believe more were involved, and they hope a development in Libya this week will help uncover fresh leads.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. Nicole Boulanger would be 46 years old, the same age her mother was when she lost Nicole. Scott Cory would be 45, the same age his father was when Scott died.
The Corys and the Boulangers are retirees now. But they remain involved in events both personal and political surrounding the Lockerbie bombing. And they say they could not have made it this far without the support of each other and that of the parents of the other 33 Syracuse students who perished on the flight home after their semester-long programs in Europe.
When John Cory was transferred by his engineering company from Connecticut to Massachusetts in 1992, he and his wife decided to buy a house a Shrewsbury to be near the Boulangers. In 2004, he was transferred back to Connecticut, and he and his wife live in Mystic.
“What helped us more than anything was that we got together as a group and made friends,” says John, who is 70. “Just being with other people who experienced the same thing was so supportive.” Many of those Syracuse parents remain active in Victims of Pan Am 103, Inc., a nonprofit whose mission is “seeking the truth about this tragedy and keeping the memory of our loved ones alive.”
Today, there will be commemorations at Arlington National Cemetery, at Westminster Abbey, and in Lockerbie.
Arlington is where the Corys will be, and the Boulangers had planned to go, too. But they will be staying home because a play, “The Women of Lockerbie,” is going to be performed at nearby Berlin Town Hall during the weekend and will include taped music by Nicole, who was an accomplished singer, dancer, and actor.
“But I will miss my Syracuse friends,” says Jeannine, 71, a retired nursing professor. “We have accomplished so much and been so close. Our kids were together, and they died together.” Many of the parents meet each fall at Syracuse University for a remembrance week held by the school, which gives out 35 scholarships each year, one for each student on the plane.
In 2001, a Libyan intelligence officer was convicted of the bombing; a second Libyan suspect was acquitted. But investigators believe that others were involved and have expressed hopes that the 2011 toppling of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy would bring progress in the case, which remains open. On Monday, Libya appointed two prosecutors to help the investigation. And Robert Mueller, who was FBI director at the time of the bombing, said in a BBC documentary this week that he believes arrests are forthcoming.
Many of the families were angry at what they saw as a cursory investigation at the time and became activists, the Corys and Boulangers among them. On the symbolic 103d day after the bombing, they demonstrated in front of the White House. They have testified before Congress, given speeches, traveled to Lockerbie.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Clinton, we wouldn’t have gotten the two bombers out of Libya for the trial,” says Cory. But the Corys and Boulangers remain bitter over the lack of transparency and communication in those early years under President George H.W. Bush. “I say I lost my son and my government on Dec. 21, 1988,” he says.
They feel that the push by the victims’ families for changes has made the airlines somewhat safer: Under an aviation security measure enacted in 1990 only ticketed passengers who board the aircraft can check baggage, unlike the Lockerbie bomber who never got on the plane.
But they also feel that much more could still be done to improve airline safety, and believe the airline industry has worked to stifle some of those changes.
Most of all, the Corys and the Boulangers remain grateful to the Scottish people and police. More than 65,000 personal items were found on the ground. Lockerbie women laundered every article of clothing and had them wrapped in tissue paper and delivered — by the postmaster in each victim’s town — to the survivors.
“Scott’s luggage was almost torn to shreds, but we got almost all of his clothes,” says John. “My oldest son wears his watch.”
The holidays, of course, are the hardest time, and a quarter century has done little to ease the pain. What would their child have been like in middle age? Would he or she have had a family by now?
“Of our three sons, Scott was the most outgoing. He enjoyed life; he was a good student and had a good future ahead of him,” says his father. “There’s very little joy, especially at Christmas, but we get together with the other families on Dec. 21 every year.”
The grandchildren have been a balm. The Corys have five, the oldest a freshman in college. The Boulangers, who have a daughter a year older than Nicole, have a granddaughter, who is also a freshman in college.
“We have to work doubly hard to make the holidays special,” says Jeannine, who has given talks to grieving parents on how to get through the holidays. “I don’t want my granddaughter to remember me as a sad person. I want her life to be filled with joy.”
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.