It was 1988, the week between Christmas and New Year, and the bar of Chili’s was crammed with Denver suburbanites waiting for tables. A neon chili pepper made everything glow red: chairs, carpet, air, flesh. I spotted my friend Annie Lareau sitting on a barstool next to her mom. After high school, we’d gone in separate directions: She went to Syracuse in upstate New York, I went to Lewis and Clark in the Pacific Northwest. Although we'd once kept in touch, I hadn’t heard from her since the previous summer – maybe longer. It didn’t mean much back then. It just meant we were busy living the lives of 20-year-olds: books, boys, beer.
“Ohmygod, Annie!” I squealed and jumped up and down. (We were the kind of girlfriends who made each other squeal and jump up and down).
“Oh,” she said. “Hi.”
I wrapped my arms around her, but she didn’t hug back. She was ragdoll-limp, with big empty eyes. “Annie,” I asked. “Are you OK?”
“I was supposed to be on the plane,” she said, her voice monotone.
“The one that exploded over Scotland last week,” she said. “All my friends were on it.”
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On Dec. 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London’s Heathrow airport at 6:25 p.m. on route to JFK in New York. Onboard were 243 passengers and 16 crew members. Of the 180 Americans on board, 35 were Syracuse University students who had spent the fall semester studying in London. Among them were eight of Annie’s close friends in the drama program, including her best friend, Theodora Cohen. Like Annie, Theo wanted nothing more than to be an actress. Just 24 hours earlier, Annie thought she’d be sitting next to Theo on the plane, that Theo would be holding her hand to help calm the inexplicable fear of flying that had gripped Annie over the previous six months. But the logistics of trying to get from JFK to her connection in Boston convinced Annie that she should fly out on the next day instead.
Approximately 27 minutes after takeoff, Scottish air traffic control lost radio contact with Flight 103. The radar screen showed not just one blip where Flight 103 should be, but four. And then those four blips fanned out and fell off the screen. The four blips represented the cockpit, the fuselage, an engine and a wing hurtling to earth after an explosion tore through the plane. Investigators concluded that the bomb, which detonated from a Samsonite suitcase in the forward baggage hold, caused immediate disintegration of the Boeing 747. Emergency procedures were never initiated, and all the controls in the cockpit were still set to cruise control. No oxygen masks had dropped down. Investigators theorized that most of the passengers and crew immediately lost consciousness from the lack of oxygen at 31,000 feet. It’s also been theorized that many of the victims regained consciousness as they spun toward earth. It took approximately two minutes for the victims’ bodies – and body parts – to fall to the ground in Lockerbie, where another 11 people were killed.
Those two minutes have occupied an exponential amount of time in Annie’s mind. She wonders how much her friends knew about what was happening to them – especially since Theo’s body hit the ground intact. “I’m hoping they instantly blacked out because they lost oxygen,” Annie tells me nearly 20 years later as we sit in her Seattle home.
All things considered, losing consciousness was the best-case scenario.
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I don’t remember what I said that night in Chili’s when Annie told me all her friends were dead. I hope I didn’t deliver some lame platitude designed make her feel better – but I probably did. We are all rendered inarticulate when faced with another’s loss, and youth makes the vocabulary of banality that much easier.
After that night, Annie and I wrote a couple of letters and talked on the phone once or twice. I even called her mom to make sure Annie was “doing OK.” At 20, I had no idea how asinine that concept was. Two months after the bombing, I received a letter from Annie written on mint-green stationery with a colorful parrot on top. She said, “I can’t tell you how good it was to see you again. I am really sorry it wasn’t under better circumstances.” She said, “I am hanging in there. I am really busy, which always helps.” She told me she’d been seeing a new guy, but he seemed to have gotten very serious very quickly. “I don’t know if I’m able to be close to anyone right now,” she said. “Commitment is not in my vocabulary. Help.”
Of course, I had no idea what she really wanted help with. And even if I had, what could I have done? Annie ended the letter, “Please keep in touch. I have missed you a great deal and don’t want to lose contact again.” She signed it, “Friends Forever.”
I didn’t hear from Annie for another 20 years.
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The day of the flight, Annie and Theo went to London’s Portobello Market and ate at their favorite falafel restaurant, joking that the garbanzos and pita was Theo’s “Last Supper.” They returned to their apartment so Theo could finish her last-minute packing. At the flat were three other close friends from the drama program who were flying out that evening: Nicole Boulanger, Turhan Ergin and Luann Rogers. In the quiet moments after the suitcases were smashed down and zipped up, Theo read the book she was taking on the plane with her, "Still Life With Woodpecker," by Tom Robbins.
A few hours before their departure, Annie walked her friends downstairs and put them all in a cab. Theo gave Annie a big hug, did a theatrical jeté off the steps of their building, and said, “I’ll see you soon.”
Annie went for a walk, then returned to the flat and turned on the TV. Two minutes later there was breaking news: A plane had fallen off radar somewhere over Scotland. That was all the media knew at that point, but Annie let out a scream that came from her toes. Then she ran to the phone and called the Syracuse University office in London. “All I could get out of my mouth was, Eight people are dead. Eight people are dead. Eight people are dead,” she says.
A car picked up Annie and three other students still on the ground. They were whisked to campus, where they were instantly mobbed by the media. The school sequestered Annie and the others, then handed them a list of all the students in the overseas program. They had to check off the ones they knew were on the plane. “We were just going down the list saying, ‘Dead. Not dead. Dead. Dead,” Annie says. All in all, there were 35.
The next day, she flew back to the States. Annie had to be pushed through Heathrow in a wheelchair, but beyond that, there were no special provisions made for her. There was no trauma therapist helping her board or fly. She was put in any old seat at the back of the plane. Annie was so numbed by shock and grief that she couldn’t have cared less if she died. For those few hours, Annie had no fear of flying.
“Terrorism may be the wrong answer to the right question,” Annie said. It was September 2008, nearly two decades after the attack on Pan Am 103. Annie was performing onstage at the Arts West Theater in Seattle, playing the role of Nadia Blye, an American professor nicknamed “the terrorism expert” in David Hare's play "The Vertical Hour." Over breakfast and dinner and a late-night rendezvous, the characters discuss the invasion of Iraq, politics and terrorism. Printed on the front of my program was the play’s famous quote: "Politics is about the reconciliation of the irreconcilable."
When Annie picked me up at the train station three hours earlier, it was the first time we’d seen each other since the night we were engulfed by the red neon glow. We hugged each other and squealed but didn’t jump up and down. We went back to her bungalow in the Queen Anne district and tried to catch up on the previous 20 years, then went to the theater. Annie said it was a coincidence, or synchronicity, or a completely subconscious decision to audition for a play that tackles the topic of terrorism so brashly. She considered it fate that the show’s opening night fell on what would have been Theo’s 40th birthday.
“The moment at which an individual picks up a gun, or prepares an explosive,” Annie's character Nadia said, “that moment is still deeply obscure. People claim to understand it, but do they? I certainly don’t.”
That truth – that you can never understand – is the conundrum that tortured Annie for years. “Why?” she constantly asked. “Why them, and not me?” She couldn’t reconcile her belief in fate with a cosmic reason for the murder of her friends. Annie finally accepted that she will never understand why she wasn’t on that plane, why her friends were. Why Abdel Basset al-Megrahi planted a bomb in the forward baggage hold that day. In "Still Life With Woodpecker," Tom Robbins writes, “There are essential, and inessential insanities.” Annie deemed the mystery of “why?” to be an inessential insanity. It was a riddle that could never be solved. “If you don’t accept that in some way, in some fashion,” she says, “how do you move forward?”
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It’s Aug. 20, 2009, and Abdel Basset al-Megrahi has been freed from prison. He is dying of prostate cancer, and the Scottish government released him for “compassionate reasons.” Al-Megrahi served only eight years of what was supposed to be a life sentence for the murder of 270 people. When al-Megrahi was tried and convicted in 2001, Annie felt no great sense of relief, no sense of justice having been done. Although theories about who was responsible for the bombing are still being debated, Annie believes Iran orchestrated the attack as retaliation for the United States' shooting down of an Iran Air passenger jet six months earlier, killing 290 civilians. Al-Megrahi may have planted the bomb, but she believes the Libyan intelligence officer was simply a hired henchman for more powerful, vengeful men. Convicting him was “just a quick and easy fix,” Annie says. She believes the men truly responsible got off free.
On the day of al-Megrahi’s release, Annie’s Facebook page is littered with messages of support and anger and disbelief from family and friends. Her first post of the day is: “Annie will find compassion today for a dying man. But when al-Megrahi leaves this earth, may he be met by 270 people led by a raven-haired firecracker of a woman, and may Theo finally get to kick his ass straight to hell.” But as the day wears on, Annie becomes more philosophical. At 11:15 that night, she posts a long musing on compassion. She says on the day of al-Megrahri’s release, she “felt no anger towards this man.” She thinks about Theo and Miriam dying alone, with no one to hold them, and about Nicole and Turhan being burned to oblivion. “Even writing these details now, I feel no anger,” she says. “I have no compassion for terrorism or the politics that breeds it, or oil obsessed leaders or religions that breed hate of any kind. I may not even have true compassion for al-Megrahi,” she says. “But I have compassion for his children, who need to say goodbye to their father ... and I do forgive.”
It’s all there, in one day’s worth of status updates: the anger, the loss, the desire for justice, and Annie’s own yearning to be above and beyond it all. Annie’s claims of compassion sound like someone trying to convince herself, but there’s also something she seems to know: anger and revenge are not the same. There is a clear line between them, and Annie knows anger and compassion can live on the same side.
Al-Megrahi returned to Libya, greeted by a cheering crowd. The jubilant homecoming has sparked international outrage, further fueled by TV footage of al-Megrahi and Moammar Gadhafi hugging, and Gadhafi thanking British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for facilitating al-Megrahi’s release. All over the world, politicians and everyday citizens are asking how and why. But on Annie’s Facebook page, there’s no more talk of terrorism or mangled fuselage or dead friends. There are three pictures of her young daughter, with the words: “A study in empathy, compassion and sympathy, and an effort to find it in all of its simplicity.”
Rendered inarticulate by the elliptical path of healing, I fall back on Tom Robbins. I type on Annie’s wall: “A better world has gotta start somewhere. Why not with you and me?”