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

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. . . . “

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“They knew about the danger of a bomb, yet they did nothing to stop it. It’s a simple security case that shows the negligence by the people responsible for security for Pan Am who did not X-ray the bags going on this flight,” Francis said.

Francis referred to some of the HBO movie’s assertions that depicted the airline’s alleged indifference. But Pan Am officials vehemently reject the movie’s depictions as “fabricated facts” by the producers to heighten and dramatize the events. A spokesman for Miami-based Alert Management Systems Inc., the security firm, declined to comment.

In one part of the film, Pan Am officials noted, a scene at the Frankfurt airport depicted a color X-ray machine and showed a security agent frustrated that it was not working.

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“It was a complete fabrication because there was no color X-ray machine working. . . . A black-and-white machine was being used, but they made that up,” said Jeffrey Kriendler, a Pan Am vice president for corporate communications.

“Some of the most damning allegations were that we took revenue in and didn’t use it on security when the money used on security far exceeded the revenue taken in,” he said.

In his review of the book, “The Fall of Pan Am 103: Inside the Lockerbie Investigation” by Brian Duffy and Steven Emerson, Robert H. Kupperman notes that the tragedy was as much a political as a personal tragedy.

Kupperman, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the organization ultimately responsible for planting the bomb, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, run by a Syrian-backed radical Palestinian known as Ahmed Jibril, was operating in Germany and some of its members had been monitored by German intelligence.

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U. S. intelligence agencies were angry at the Germans, who later tried to cover up their monitoring efforts. The result, some observers contend, was maneuvering on a worldwide scale to get out of any responsibility or blame.

Yet as Kupperman said, “In the end, there is plenty of blame to go around.”

For Avritt, the issues have become nearly too complex to follow.

“I know who Jibril is and that he got substantial amounts of money to carry this out. But it’s very complicated. I’ve not been able to figure it all out myself,” Avritt said.

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A CBS report aired Monday night said: “Proof of a Libyan role in the Lockerbie bombing was found just last summer when British police discovered a crucial piece of the bomb’s detonator.”

CBS said the piece, a computer chip, turned out to be an identical match to a bomb part carried by a Libyan operative arrested in Senegal 10 months before the crash.

Meanwhile in Washington, a Drug Enforcement Administration official said Tuesday that an extensive investigation had not turned up any evidence that the DEA had been an unwitting accomplice in the Pan Am bombing.

Some news agencies had reported that security was lax enough at the Frankfurt airport to allow a DEA informant to bypass security as part of a drug “sting” operation. News reports named a Lebanese-American, Khalid Jaafar, who died in the crash, as having a role in the sting. But DEA officials emphatically said Jaafar was not “in our system in any way.”

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After the crash, Avritt turned to friends and family for support. She said she received a letter from the president of Pan Am offering his condolences, and she received “a lot of help” from her husband’s flight engineer’s union.

Without her husband, she has become both father and mother. She always offers encouragement to her son, Marcus, who is a student at Golden West College. Her daughter, Angela, is a senior at Westminster High School.

“I keep saying to Marcus: ‘You have to find something you want to do with your life, rather than what you have to do. It would be easier for you.’

“We’ve all been to support groups and therapy. I recommend it for people who go through tragedies like this. It’s better to learn to deal with your loss than hold it inside of you,” she said.

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Avritt praised her support group, Suddenly Single--a group for people who have lost their spouses.

It helped with the depression after her husband’s loss and the roller-coaster emotions she suffered after the crash.

“I still have a lot of Jerry’s things here and going through his clothes, I cried. But I’ve found out that there is no right way or wrong way for handling personal tragedy.

“When he died, I needed to talk with someone aside from my family and friends. The day after the crash, I got out the newspaper and I found relatives of (Pan Am flight attendant) Jocelyn Reina in the phone book. I knew I had to talk to somebody and we relatives have a common bond,” Avritt explained.

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“It’s a day-to-day life. I don’t live for the future. I believe that if someone says, ‘Let’s have lunch sometime,’ I don’t say ‘OK,’ and move on to another subject. I say let’s make a date and set a time. I say let’s do it now; we never know how much time we’ll have.”


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