How Another University Coped

Nearly 20 years ago, 35 Syracuse U. students died while aboard Pan Am Flight 103. The university is still responding.
April 17, 2007

Few colleges have ever had to cope with a violent tragedy even approaching the magnitude experienced at Virginia Tech Monday -- “thank God,” says Judy O’Rourke, who, as director of undergraduate studies at Syracuse University, can imagine the pain in Blacksburg today all too well.

For while the circumstances were very different, Syracuse too lost an overwhelming number of students to violence when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Thirty-five Syracuse University students returning from study abroad were among the victims of the terrorist bombing. Nearly 20 years later, the reverberations still recoil.

“That was a huge number of people,” says O’Rourke, who has coordinated much of the university’s response to the Pan Am bombing from the beginning, when she worked as an assistant to the vice president of undergraduate studies (who oversaw the study abroad program). “Virginia Tech might find this very similar feeling: There was no college, no faculty, no residence hall, no group that wasn’t affected by having some member of their community either on Pan Am 103 or studying closely with those people.”

“For us, it was a huge impact.”

The immediate response to the tragedy was likely quite similar to what's happening at Virginia Tech, O’Rourke says -- “confusion, fear, pain.” It can take several days until those at the college can get a stable look at the information, can determine exactly what happened, she says.

“The first thing that’s going to happen at Virginia Tech is they’re going to have to figure out where they stand right now, and then they’re going to have to start a process of formally grieving for what they lost. But it’s going to take a long time." Years, O'Rourke adds.

In the immediate aftermath, the university opened a multi-denominational chapel to all students for a service the night of the bombing; about 1,800 people attended, O'Rourke remembers. Students were encouraged to stop by the chapel to sign a memory book and to honor the dead in moments of silence, while the administration also marshaled people to seek the students out who might not ask for help on their own. "From a purely staffing level, you can be stretched thin. There are so many things that must be done for so many people," O'Rourke says.

"You have to try and find the resources to be able to do that -- I mean people resources, people that are able to go out into the residence halls, into the classrooms, wherever the students are gathering, to be able to talk to them and help them" (or, she adds, direct them to the appropriate people).

The transition from active grief on campus to remembrance -- and even education -- can  be seen by looking to the winners of the university's Remembrance Scholarship, established within a year of the explosion. Immediately after the tragedy, it was an “‘I knew people who were on the plane’ kind of scholarship," says O’Rourke. But, of course, after a few years passed, the winners no longer had any direct relationship with the Pan Am victims.

Now, the 35 scholars -- who each receive $5,000 for their senior year at Syracuse -- host an annual Remembrance Week each fall complete with  exhibits, panel discussions and presentations about terrorism and "what it is that we are each responsible for as individuals in this community to improve and protect the world," O'Rourke says.

Photos of the victims are prominently displayed on campus in the weeks leading to the December 21 anniversary each year. The university also provides two scholarships for Lockerbie students wishing to study at Syracuse, and O’Rourke says she still stays in close contact with many of the families of those students killed December 21, 1988. Meanwhile, a monument stands right at the heart of campus -- a constant reminder to passersby.

“It’s tough, because as much as you want the pain to go away, you don’t want the memories of those who passed to ever go away,” says Kevin Morrow, a university spokesman who was a staff member at the campus’s public radio station at the time of the tragedy. “We’re already looking ahead to the 20th anniversary,” he adds -- the response to that terrible day’s events still ongoing.


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