On 25th anniversary of terrorist bombing, New Hampshire family remembers son
In this December 1988 file photo, a police officer walks past the wreckage in Lockerbie, Scotland of Pan Am Flight 103 from London to New York. In late 2003, after years of denial, Gadhafi's Libya acknowledged responsibility for the bombing of the jumbo jet that killed 270 people. As rebels swarmed into Tripoli, Libya, late Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011, and Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam was arrested, Gadhafi's rule was all but over, even though some loyalists continued to resist. (AP Photo, File)
Two Syracuse University students console one another during a memorial service for students that perished in the crash of a Pan Am jumbo jet in Scotland. The service attracted over 500-students to Hendricks Chapel on the university in Syracuse, New York, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 1988. (AP Photo/Michael Okaniewski)
Stephen John Boland, age 20.
Stephen Boland, of Nashua, was one of the 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988. Boland was one of 35 students at Syracuse University who were traveling home on board the plane from a semester abroad in London. The flowers were placed last summer by family near where his body was found.
An air force salvage expert examines some of the small debris of the crashed Pan-Am Jumbo jet, at Sherwood crescent in Lockerbie, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 1988. (AP Photo)
At 2 p.m. this afternoon, Jane Boland plans to drive her car into Nashua’s Edgewood Cemetery. She’ll pull up to the grave she’s been visiting for 25 years, roll down her windows and crank up the speakers.
There she’ll sit, remembering, as four songs wail from her car: James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and John Lennon’s “In My Life” and “Beautiful Boy.”
This is her routine nearly every Dec. 21, unless she spends the day at Arlington National Cemetery, mourning with families who feel the same sense of loss she has every day since this day in 1988 – the day her son and 269 others died at the hands of terrorists when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in the sky over the tiny town of Lockerbie, Scotland.
Two hundred forty-three passengers. Sixteen crew members. Eleven people on the ground.
Thirty-five of the dead were Syracuse University students traveling home from a semester abroad. One of them was Stephen Boland of New Hampshire. He left behind his mother, Jane, his now-deceased father, John, and his little sister, Kelly. He was 20 years old.
‘They let me know you were gone’
Underneath his senior photo in Bishop Guertin High School’s 1986 yearbook, Steve’s referenced a lyric from his favorite singer, Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Steve’s Beatles’ fandom sparked his desire to travel to England, a chance he’d get while studying at Syracuse. An ambitious high school student – he won a prestigious award for excelling in academics and athletics – he was accepted early decision to Syracuse’s communications school to study advertising.
He decided to study in London during the fall of his junior year, where he received a coveted internship to work at an ad agency, given to one student each semester.
His social life was just as successful. When the students’ allowance checks came each month, Kelly said, Steve would use the money to throw a party in his flat. And no matter how broke he and his friends were, they’d find a way to travel.
One weekend, Steve and his roommates convinced an older friend to rent them a car so they could travel Scotland. With Steve at the wheel, they zipped through the countryside for a weekend, sleeping on the famed St. Andrew’s Golf Course to save money, one of his friends later told Jane.
“I know we were going over 80 miles an hour in this little car, and we had no idea where we were going, but Steve was driving so I just closed my eyes,” Jane remembers him telling her.
One of the last pictures taken of Steve is at a pub in London, where he’s sitting with two Notre Dame students, one of them his best friend from Nashua. They have their arms around each other, smiling into the camera. Those Notre Dame students flew home aboard a Pan Am flight Dec. 20.
Steve nearly missed his flight the next day. He was out to lunch with members of the advertising firm he’d interned with and lost track of time, just making it aboard Pan Am 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of the Seas that had begun its journey in Frankfurt.
The plane took off from London Heathrow Airport at 6:25 p.m. local time, or 1:25 p.m. in Nashua. Steve planned to ride the plane to JFK in New York, then continue onto Boston, where his father would pick him up and bring him back to Nashua that night.
Jane got out of work early so she could have some of her son’s favorite foods waiting. She planned to make spinach ham the next night and bought two sticky buns for Steve to eat on his first morning home.
She was sitting at a stoplight when the radio broadcasters said a Pan Am flight from England, set to arrive stateside at the same time as Steve’s, had crashed. Somehow Jane knew it was her son’s flight. She drove to gather Kelly from her after-school job nearby.
“I walked in and I found her near the back and I said, ‘Kelly, I think something’s happened to Steve’s plane, you’ve got to come home.’ ”
Kelly told herself her big brother would be okay. But as she and her mother walked out of the building, they broke down.
“We walked back to the car, actually, I think we stopped on the sidewalk, and knelt down and were crying trying to get to the car holding each other up,” Kelly recalled.
When they got home and turned on the TV, the news showed flaming plane pieces strewn across a field. Steve’s father, John, had been waiting for the flight with a relative in Boston and had to be driven home.
“He walked in the house, I remember that, and we went into the little bathroom off the family room, and it’s the two of us just standing there saying ‘Steve’s gone’ and it was unbelievable,” Jane said. Kelly remembers hearing the phone ring in the night and her parents sob as they got confirmation that Steve was dead.
In the days before Christmas, the Boland home was filled with everyone but Steve: his friends, who came to sit in his bedroom, neighbors, representatives from Pan Am, reporters and the FBI. Jane remembers parking herself in a hallway closet.
“Anyone who wanted to talk or listen to me about Steve, I just kept talking and talking.”
‘See me through another day’
Days later, news broke that in early December, the U.S. Embassy in Finland had received an anonymous threat saying a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the United States would be blown up within weeks.
It would take three years for investigators to determine how a bomb inside a suitcase made it onto the plane. In the meantime, families formed the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which lobbied the first Bush administration to enact stricter airline security policies and evaluate how authorities handled terror warnings.
Lockerbie became the scene of an international investigation. The town’s 4,000 residents reacted with resolute grace, gathering the bodies and belongings from the fields and returning them in clean and neat condition to the victims’ families.
Steve’s body was found intact behind the house of Sheila and Walter Macdonald, who later became the Bolands’ dear friends. His L.L. Bean luggage bag had a single tear, and the treasured Beatles cassettes he’d traveled with now sit in Kelly’s basement. His clothes and the letters from his gray Delta Tau Delta fraternity sweatshirt were sent back to the family, too.
“It had all been washed, pressed and wrapped in tissue,” Jane said.
In 1991, the U.S. and Scottish governments indicted two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. When Libya refused to extradite the suspects, the U.S. and U.N. imposed economic sanctions, waging a battle that would last until 1999, when all sides agreed to hold the trial before a Scottish judge in the Netherlands, a neutral country.
Jane was there for a week of the trial in 2000, nearly 12 years after her son was ripped from her. She traveled there with the Macdonalds, and another family whose daughter was found in their yard. For one week, they sat in a room staring at the men accused of murdering their children.
“You’re thinking, ‘How could you be a part of this?’ And I guess that’s what you would think of anyone that does terrible acts to people. How could you do this? How could you be a part of trying to kill hundreds of people?” Jane said.
Thirty-six weeks later, in January 2001, the court declared only al-Megrahi guilty. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Controversy still surrounds what happened in the bombing of Pan Am 103. Then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi claimed responsibility for the attacks in 2003 but refused to admit he ordered the bombing. The Libyan government also paid $10 million apiece to victims’ families. But shaky evidence leaves some skeptics believing the Iranian or Palestinian groups committed the bombing.
Al-Megrahi was released from prison in 2009, less than halfway through his sentence. A doctor said he had terminal prostate cancer and three months to live, though he survived until May 2012.
Scottish and American investigators are still searching for evidence that will piece together the full truth.
Jane believes al-Megrahi is guilty, but that he wasn’t the sole perpetrator. Over the years, she’s disengaged herself from the politics of it all. None of it will bring her son back.
‘How I wish you were here’
Until 9/11, the bombing was the largest terror attack against the United States. The disaster made airline security a new national priority and taught the government how to deal with families grieving by the dozens. Syracuse also declared it would never let the victims or their families be forgotten.
Advocacy by the victims’ families prompted the creation of the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism in 1989, which made a number of recommendations that are now law. Today, the State Department plays a larger role in international travel security, for example, and the FBI assists the Federal Aviation Administration in responding to terror threats. And earlier this year, when the Transportation Security Administration considered letting small knives back on planes, some families of Pan Am and 9/11 victims lobbied against it.
“This is a continual and ongoing thing that the families have done for 25 years, with great success I think, to make the traveling public much safer,” said Judy O’Rourke, who runs Syracuse’s programs honoring the victims and serves as secretary for Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.
In 1990, the president’s commission said that the State Department should be responsible for managing the needs of victims of international terrorism. When Pan Am went down, the government had no idea how to handle the families, and often pushed the duties to its lowest-level employees, O’Rourke said.
“No one was prepared in any way, shape or form, mentally or logistically, to handle this kind of thing in the United States of America,” O’Rourke said.
In response, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI created victims units that still operate today, with employees dedicated to aiding victims of terrorism.
And the families have never stopped pushing for the truth. Recently, the United Kingdom appointed two investigators as liaisons to Libya to continue searching for evidence on who ordered the bombing, O’Rourke said. The families have lines of contact with the FBI and Scottish prosecutors. They also still meet with government agencies and some serve on TSA committees.
Beyond influencing how the country responds to terrorism, families and friends of the 270 victims have worked over the past 25 years to make sure each individual’s spirit lives on.
At Syracuse, 35 seniors are given a scholarship every year in the names of the student victims, and scholars host a week of events dedicated to remembering the bombing and promoting terrorism awareness. The university library houses collections of personal belongings of roughly 120 victims as well as transcripts from the 2000 trial. Each year, the campus holds a remembrance ceremony, and Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 holds its annual meeting there.
Jane and Kelly, and John when he was alive, have attended many of the ceremonies. At the first in 1989, they began friendships that have endured. Jane invited the Macdonalds, the Lockerbie couple, to come. The body of a young woman, Amy Gallagher, was also found in the Macdonalds' yard. They’d left flowers in the indentations the bodies had made.
At that ceremony the Bolands and Gallaghers met each other for the first time. In the years since, the three families have kept in touch. They met in the Netherlands to attend the trial, then traveled Europe. Jane, Kelly and Kelly’s daughter traveled with the Gallaghers to Lockerbie this summer to watch the Macdonalds’s daughter get married.
Twenty-five years of friendship, 25 years of loss. Twenty-five Christmases without Steve. They have never forgotten, and they have never looked at their lives quite the same. Still, they go on, saddened but not stopped by the wash of emptiness that rolls over them from a memory.
“You don’t know when it could happen,” Kelly said. “But you also, as dad would say, you can’t stop living. You can’t stop living – you can’t live in fear, you can’t stop your life, you just have to keep going.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)
(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Walter and Sheila Macdonald’s role in finding Steve Boland’s body. His body was found by police in the fields behind their home in Lockerbie.)