Remembering Pan Am 103

By Christopher Manion Published on December 22, 2018

Thirty years ago today, making coffee on the morning of December 22, I heard a report on the TV morning news: “The crowd at the Syracuse basketball game last night paused for a moment of silence to commemorate the 35 Syracuse students killed in the crash of Pan Am 103 over Scotland yesterday,” it read.

I turned to the screen and shouted: “Paused? Paused???!!!”

A week before, on December 15, I had been in Austria and found myself walking through the beautiful Christmas Market there on the cathedral square. I stopped to enjoy a father-son duo as they sang “Puff the Magic Dragon,” when a young girl came by and added a perfect third voice to the chorus.

“You ought to sign up,” I said. “Yeah, they’re pretty good, aren’t they,” she answered.

That’s how I met Elyse Saracini, who was about to go home to Pennsylvania after spending a semester in London on a program sponsored by Syracuse University. I bought her lunch at a Würstel stand, heard all about her family’s little farm near Seton Hill College, where both of her parents taught. She wrote down her name and address in my calendar.

“Elyse, with a Y,” I asked?

“Yes,” she laughed. “When I was born my mother heard one of the nurses call me ‘Elsie,’ and she didn’t want that to happen again!”

And then we said goodbye.

There’s Been a Crash

When I left Austria, I flew back to Washington through Paris. I’d intended to go through London to see a friend, but never heard back from her, so Ambassador Dick Walters let me spend the night in his tiny but marvelous apartment on the Champs Elysees. The next morning I flew back to DC.

“Call home, call home,” the Dulles Airport Customs officer called out, waving us all through the normally tedious lines. “There’s been a crash.”

So I called home, and yes, my mother didn’t know I’d switched from London to Paris. Good news all around.

The next morning, watching that news report, I suddenly realized — “Wait a minute! She was on that program!” When I got to my office at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I called the State Department. When I got the right guy, he wouldn’t tell me if she was on the plane. “Do you want the chairman to ask you?” I said.

“OK,” he told me. “Yes, she is on the passenger list.”

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Consoling the Parents

I was blown away. I went down the hall to see my boss, Jesse Helms, Senator from North Carolina. By then we know that the Pan Am crash had been caused by a terrorist bombing; it was sure to come up on our committee’s radar in short order. (We later learned that Libyans were the architects of the attack.)

I told the boss about this wonderful girl, and he suggested that I call her parents and share the wonderful moments I’d spent with her.

“She was beautiful, so happy, she was really looking forward to coming home.”

“But Senator, I don’t want to make them feel bad,” I murmured aimlessly.

“Don’t worry, son, they’re never going to feel worse than they do now.”

Elyse Saraceni

Elyse Saraceni

So I called. And I spoke with Elyse’s dad for quite a while. He told me all about her, and I told him how wonderful a semester she’d had, the music she’d heard (she was a pianist), the friends — everything I could think of. I could sense how hard it was for him even to stay on the line with me, but he was very grateful for my call. He promised to let me know about the memorial service.

The Stranger Who Called

Christmas came and went … and in mid-January I got the news: Elyse’s funeral would be held at her home parish, and friends would gather the evening before at the college’s main building.

I drove up — the college was near Pittsburgh, and the trip took longer than I thought. Hundreds of mourners waited to talk to the Saracenis, and I was last in line.

Then a familiar face! A friend who’d worked with me at Rockford College ten years before saw me and said hello. “Wow, what brought you here,” he asked?

I explained.

“Oh my goodness,” he said. “You must be the stranger who called!”

Remembering Who We Lost

He went on to tell me how Elyse’s dad had been so comforted by my call that he had told everyone about it — for the last month, ever since the morning of December 22. Waiting there in line, many of her friends and classmates wanted to hear more from Elyse’s nameless friend.

The Mother Superior came over to say hello to me. Elyse’s mother, Iva, had been so strong, she said. She hadn’t been able to cry.

The line ended, it was my turn. I introduced myself … “What did she look like,” Iva almost shouted, throwing her arms out, looking at me desperately.

“She was beautiful, so happy, she was really looking forward to coming home.”

I showed her where Elyse had written her name in my calendar. She ran her fingers over the page for a moment, and then threw her arms around me, sobbing, and cried for the longest time.

The Finger of Providence

Our daughter’s in college now, so far away that she has to fly. I pray for her so much.

I realized that, had I stayed in London instead of Paris, I would have been on Pan Am 103.

Later I realized that, had I stayed in London instead of Paris, I would have been on Pan Am 103. Eventually I heard from my friend there. “It took a month for me to get your letter,” she wrote. My address is 34 but you wrote 43.”

Who wrote “43”? Me, cross-eyed as I am? Or my guardian angel, because God had other plans?

In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens says it better than I can:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

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