Wednesday, Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded in midair as it traveled from London to New York City. Before the Boeing 747–121, which was nicknamed the Clipper Maid of the Seas, could reach the Atlantic, a timer-activated bomb detonated inside the plane from its hiding spot in a cassette player tucked away in a suitcase. The explosion scattered pieces of the plane over 850 square miles of Lockerbie, Scotland, as well as the remains of the 243 passengers and 16 crew members. Twenty-one houses on the ground were destroyed, and 11 Lockerbie residents also lost their lives. Among the passengers were 35 Syracuse University students returning home after studying abroad for a semester.
In 1986 the US conducted a bombing campaign against Libya’s capital city, Tripoli, and many suspected the Pan Am disaster was a direct retaliation. When Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi refused to turn over the two intelligence agents suspected to be responsible, sanctions were imposed on the country and Qaddafi eventually extradited the men in 1998. One of them, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to 27 years in prison; he was released in 2009 on “compassionate grounds” and died of prostate cancer last year. His suspected accomplice, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted.
Deborah Brevoort based her 2003 poetic drama ‘The Women of Lockerbie’ on the aftermath of the terrorist attack. In the play, which was written with the structure of a Greek tragedy, revolves around a husband and wife whose son died in the bombing and their visit to Lockerbie 7 years later. While attending a winter solstice vigil that honors those who were lost, they discover a group of women who are trying to gain access to over 11,000 items of clothing which were scattered across Lockerbie after the disaster, so they can wash and return them to the victims’ families, – but they find resistance from a U.S. official. However, unlike most Greek tragedies, there is some hope of closure.
The FBI was so inspired by the actual ‘Ladies of Lockerbie’ that it later created a unit dedicated to returning the belongings of terror victims to their families. The FBI’s victim services division, a team of 72 agents based at the bureau’s Washington headquarters, now follows in their footsteps, painstakingly cleaning personal items found in the wake of atrocities and delivering them to relatives of the dead and wounded. Through the unit, victims of the 9/11 attacks, the bombings in Bali and the Boston marathon, as well as Paris and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, have had their possessions cleaned and sent back to their families.
The production, while strongly based on the actual event, uses fictionalized characters and situations to tell the story of a visiting American couple and the kindness offered by the survivors who live in Lockerbie. The women have found a way to recall the night of the bombing, and their own personal losses and how they cope, with tender care and at times, even humor. What results is a journey through grief, love and healing and a remembrance of an event that, sadly, still echoes the news today.
‘The Women of Lockerbie’ has been produced more than 600 times and has been translated into nine languages. Brevoort won the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays Award for her script. National publications praised the play. The New Yorker called it “a moving, thoughtful exploration of how grief changes over time,” and Variety called it “a powerhouse drama.”
If you go:
What: ‘The Women of Lockerbie’, directed by Penelope Notter and presented by Muskegon Civic Theatre
Where: The Beardsley Theater at the Frauenthal Center for the Arts. 425 W Western Ave. Muskegon, MI
When: February 15-17, February 21-24, February 28-March 2
Tickets: Reserve tickets by calling 231.727.8001 or buy online at Star Tickets.