There are moments in your life when you remember exactly what you were doing as though it happened yesterday, even if it happened many years ago. I previously wrote about what I was doing on 9/11. Likewise, I remember other events, such as the Challenger disaster (I was a freshman at Syracuse having lunch in my dorm dining hall). In this article, I want to write about another such fateful day.
Yesterday, with only a day to go before Syracuse opens its football season at Western Michigan, I went poking around a couple of websites for more information about the upcoming game. I went to the Daily Orange‘s website, and in doing so, I stumbled upon this article, which I was not expecting to see. As soon as I saw it, memories from nearly thirty years ago suddenly came back to me.
On December 21, 1988, I was winding up the fall semester of my senior year at Syracuse University. I was living in a house that I shared with six other guys only a block off-campus. It was finals week. That evening, I was in my room, studying for one of my final exams. I decided to take a study break and went downstairs to the kitchen to get myself a snack.
As I made my way down the stairs, I saw my housemates in the living room, gathered around the TV.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“A plane crashed, and there were Syracuse students aboard,” I was told.
I was in shock. To be honest, I don’t think I got back to studying that night. I took a seat in the living room with my housemates and was glued to the TV, watching the news for the rest of the night.
The phone started ringing. A number of band alumni friends (all of us in the house were members of the marching band) had just heard the news, and were calling to ask if any band members were on board. (Those of you who know about marching band culture understand that band members consider each other to be family.) At that point, news was just trickling in, and we were not aware of who was on the plane. I remember hearing that SU students were aboard, but there was no information as to how many of our classmates were affected. We heard varying numbers: ten, fifteen, nineteen.
I went for a walk around campus the next day. The campus was eerily deserted, except for a few news trucks parked around the campus to cover the breaking story. For such a large campus like Syracuse, the entire place felt like a ghost town. With the nearly empty campus, combined with the cold December air, it was probably the only time I ever felt unnerved walking around the campus.
It turned out that there were thirty-five Syracuse students on Pan Am 103. Thirty-five of my classmates were gone. Although I didn’t know any of them, I now feel as close to them as I do any of my friends from college.
Syracuse played a home basketball that night. As a member of the pep band, I could’ve attended the game, but I opted not to go, since I still had final exams to study for. I understand that SU got a lot of flak for not canceling the game in light of the tragedy. They did observe a moment of silence at the beginning of the game.
The marching band did have an opportunity to recognize the tragedy a couple of weeks later. The Orange football team had played its way to a 9-2 regular season, good enough for a berth in the Hall of Fame (now Outback) Bowl in Tampa, FL. We wore black ribbons on our uniforms for the game, and observed a moment of silence on the field during our pre-game show. After the game, I took some White-Out and wrote “PA103” on one half of the ribbon, and “12-21-88” on the other. I still have that ribbon.
Syracuse University has since paid tribute to the disaster by building a memorial, setting up a scholarship fund, and setting aside a Remembrance Week commemoration each year. Whenever I’m back on campus, I try to take a moment to spend some time at the memorial as I remember my thirty-five fallen classmates.
Part of my reason for writing this post is so I can go back to that article I found. At some point, I want to travel to Scotland and take a trip to Lockerbie — a pilgrimage, if you will. I feel a need to connect with my classmates at the place where they died nearly thirty years ago, as well as pay tribute to the small town that was affected by the tragedy. The article helped me better understand the town of Lockerbie, which would enable me to better respect the people there who have since moved on from that fateful day.