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The Gates of Grief Reopened : The Pain Never Ends, Those Who Lost Loved Ones in Lockerbie Warn Families of TWA Crash Victims

July 24, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost eight years have passed since these families' lives were shattered by a disaster in the sky. On Dec. 21, 1988, a bomb planted by terrorists exploded on New York-bound Pan Am Flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 aboard and 11 on the ground.

Now, the explosion of TWA Flight 800, with 230 dead and speculation that it may have been a deliberate act of violence. "Here we go again, deja vu," says Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose only child, Theodora, 20, died in the Pan Am crash.

The TWA crash has reopened emotional wounds that, for some Pan Am 103 families, had finally begun to heal.

Like the TWA victims' families, the Pan Am families suffered frustrating delays in identification of bodies, a long wait to learn the cause of the explosion and what they perceived to be callous or indifferent behavior by airline personnel.

For most, the legal book is now closed. Only about 10 of the 225 lawsuits against the airline remain unresolved, says Lee Kreindler, a New York attorney who was lead counsel for the plaintiffs. A corporate executive's wife was awarded $19 million--now under appeal--but for those who lost children, reality was more like $575,000 minus lawyer's fees.

But Eleanor Bright of Dover, Mass., who lost her husband, Nicholas, and won a settlement, says, "If your husband or your child or your parent or your sister or your brother was murdered, there is no amount of money that will ever bring you satisfaction."

Here are the stories of three Pan Am 103 families, their roller coaster emotional journeys, how they coped and the grief they will take with them to their own graves.

*

The news of the TWA crash made Hope Asrelsky physically ill. "When it happened to us," she says, "I felt detached, stunned, as though I were in a movie watching myself . . . but this one, it just went right to the gut."

Remembering her daughter, Rachel, a 21-year-old senior at Grinnell College in Iowa who'd been studying in Florence, Italy, Asrelsky doesn't elevate her to sainthood. "My girl, she was not easy to live with, always telling people what to do and how to do it better. Trouble is, she was usually right. She was so smart, so tough, always pushing. She would have done something powerful, I think."

For five years, Asrelsky marched and demonstrated with other families, making sure the dead would not be forgotten. Then, she says, "It just seemed time to let go."

She wouldn't allow herself to be swallowed up by her grief. "It would do no honor to the dead just to give up. And I had things to do," including raising her son, John, then 14.

For a while, a part-time job and church work were good therapy. Then, last September, turning 60, she enrolled in a veterinary technician course and is now interning at an animal hospital.

Since losing Rachel, she says, "I'm much more ready to jump in and do things. What am I waiting for? I could walk into a subway murderer tomorrow."

At the Manhattan high-rise where the Asrelskys live, she helps tend a little garden where a plaque honors Rachel's memory. Some of Rachel's ashes are there. Some are scattered in Florence, where she spent happy times.

These days, when Asrelsky goes to her college reunions, things are different. Once, she says, classmates bragged to her about their perfect, beautiful children doing wonderful, important things. Now they tell her "about their son who's 19 and sober after being an alcoholic for three years or the child who's been in a mental institution for 25 years."

She says, "I'm the one they can talk to"--and she's honored. "I'm reminded more and more that, no matter how we look on the outside, most of us have wounds and scratches and scars inside, and other people have problems worse than mine."

Still, the Asrelskys are bitter. Angry at their government for "playing footsie" with countries that shelter terrorists. Angry with Pan Am, whose security measures, they contend, were "a joke."

To Rachel's father, Arnold Asrelsky, an English professor, the TWA crash with its possibility of having been caused by terrorists is a wake-up call. "Right now, we are vulnerable. No one can say whose brother, whose sister, whose children will be killed in the next one."

*

As Eleanor Bright absorbs the media blitz around TWA 800, she knows, "In the long term, the memory will fade, except for the victims' families."

If a terrorist bomb did blow up TWA 800, she asks, "What have we learned from Lockerbie? All those people on Pan Am 103 were murdered, including my husband, and yet it didn't do any good. His death didn't seem to change anything."

Nicholas Bright, 32, of Dover, Mass., a business consultant, had been in London seeing clients and had booked a return on British Airways. A late meeting forced a switch to Pan Am 103.

Eleanor Bright got the official word of his death from a Pan Am rep who called eight hours after the explosion. The message: "I'm sorry, Mrs. Bright. Your husband turned in his coupon." It was the first of the nightmarish jolts that would follow.

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