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The Pain Remains : 2 Years After Lockerbie Crash, Widow's Emotional Wounds Are Still Fresh

December 20, 1990|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A memorial service in Lockerbie, Scotland, Friday--the second anniversary of the crash of Pan Am Flight 103--will draw many grieving family members. Judy Avritt will not be among them.

For Avritt, who lost her husband, Jerry Avritt, a 46-year-old flight engineer and Pan Am crew member, the emotional pain remains too strong.

"I don't think I'm ready for a visit to Lockerbie. I've heard that other victims' family members who have gone there have said it really helped their healing process and the town itself is very hospitable to the families," Avritt said.

"Maybe next year. . . . "

On Dec. 21, 1988, a terrorist bomb exploded aboard the Pan American World Airways flight, causing a crash that killed 259 passengers and 11 residents of Lockerbie.

The plastic explosives had been hidden in the cargo hold in a radio-cassette player. U.S. authorities believe the bomb, which was smuggled aboard the flight in Frankfurt, West Germany, was an attack commissioned by Iran in revenge for a U.S. Navy warship's accidental downing of an Iranian jetliner in the Persian Gulf six months earlier.

"I'm a pretty stable person but at the very beginning, I was really lost," Avritt said.

For the Westminster mother and her two teen-age children, there were first feelings of grief, loss and then anger. To help ease the pain, Avritt insisted that she and her family, including her son, Marcus, now 19, and daughter, Angela, now 17, receive counseling and therapy.

But the steady stream of new revelations, combined with a recent television movie and a book on what is regarded as the most deadly terrorist attack ever directed at American civilians, has complicated the healing process for many families of the victims.

Now, however, after two years, Avritt is finally able to say, "We're just starting to get back to a normal living pattern."

At first, Avritt said she was emotionally "too numb" to comprehend the news accounts. Now, she usually reads every article about the crash and saves them in an album.

She didn't watch the HBO docudrama "The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story," depicting Pan Am as indifferent to security problems, when it aired earlier this month. She said she may see it later when she is emotionally stronger.

She has, however, filed a federal lawsuit against Pan Am and its security agent, alleging negligence for allowing the bomb to be smuggled on board. Lawsuits against the airline could cost it up to $300 million.

And she has joined other relatives of victims of Flight 103 as an advocate for mandatory bomb-threat warnings, supporting passage of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990.

Admittedly, Avritt is not a crusader as some victims' relatives have become who successfully lobbied Congress for the bill's passage. The act was signed into law by President Bush last month.

The legislation authorizes money from the Airport & Airways Trust Fund to buy new high-tech, explosive-detection devices for airports served by American carriers. The bill also provides funding for security programs to control airport access.

What was difficult to accept for the relatives of victims was that warnings were passed on to some people and not others.

Sixteen days before the flight, according to newspaper reports, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki had received an anonymous threat that a bomb would be placed aboard a Pan Am jet leaving Frankfurt for New York.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a security bulletin, which was distributed by the State Department to embassies and certain U.S. government representatives overseas, but not to the general public.

Avritt said that some air passengers did not board the aircraft as a result of the bulletin. Of those on board, the passengers were mostly children and young adults going home for the holidays, including 35 from a Syracuse University study program. And although it was only four days before Christmas, the airplane which was en route to New York was only half full.

It is this point that angers many of the victims' families.

"At least let the passengers know about the threat and let them decide if they want to get off the plane. They should have that right," Avritt stressed.

George Williams of Joppa, Md., who lost his son, was quoted as saying that the politicians "would all like to forget about this, but we won't let them."

Few air crashes have been so thoroughly investigated as that of Flight 103. Yet, the post-crash maneuvering of governments and their intelligence agencies has left the relatives believing the matter was handled insensitively.

Avritt's attorney, Judson Francis Jr., who spent two weeks at Lockerbie monitoring the investigation, scoffs at reports dealing with one nation's intelligence agency pitted against another. Boiled down, it's a "simple case of airport-security negligence," Francis said, referring to the Avritts' negligence lawsuit against Pan Am and and its security firm.

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