Lockerbie first responders meet family of Pan Am Flight 103 disaster victim in Fallston
Oct 29, 2018 | 5:00 AM
From the tragedy nearly 30 years ago when a Bel Air man’s sister was killed in a terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland, came something positive — an incredible bond between people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Five bicyclists riding from Washington, D.C., to Syracuse University to honor those killed in the attack stopped at Annie’s Playground in Fallston Friday evening to meet the mother and brother of one of the 35 Syracuse University students onboard the plane.
“I just want to say thank you to these wonderful people,” Peggy Otenasek, the mother of Anne Lindsey Otenasek, said. “We could never, ever express our gratitude. In the midst of their own grief, the people of Lockerbie reached out to us immediately and continue to do so every year.”
Lindsey, as her family called her, was 20 and among the 259 people aboard Pan Am Flight 103 when it crashed Dec. 21, 1988 over Lockerbie. A suitcase bomb, eventually traced to Libyan terrorists, had been planted in the plane's baggage compartment.
Also killed was Geordie Williams, a 24-year-old Army first lieutenant stationed in Germany, who was on his way home to Joppatowne for Christmas. He was a graduate of Joppatowne High School and the only child of George and Helena Williams.
Lindsey, a student at Western Maryland College participating in an exchange program through Syracuse University in New York, was also on her way home for Christmas. Her flight never made it — it exploded in a terrorist attack and fell to the ground, killing 11 people in the town.
Hundreds of rescuers rushed to the scene and spent days and weeks clearing the wreckage. Residents of Lockerbie offered their help, their homes, their prayers.
On Friday, two of those first responders were part of a five-man team from Lockerbie — which included other emergency workers who did not respond to the tragedy — who set off on their bicycles from Washington, D.C., to Syracuse, where every year the university remembers and honors the 34 other students who were aboard Pan Am Flight 103.
The riders stopped at Annie’s Playground in Fallston, about 30 miles from their destination in Cecil County, to meet Ms. Otenasek’s mother, Peggy, and brother, Rick. They set off again around 6:15 p.m., as the skies grew dark and the rain began.
It was an emotional gathering for the Otenasek family and for the riders, who had never met. They embraced, with few words and a few tears.
“They’re wonderful, kind-hearted people. They themselves were suffering, they lost 11 people. They were in their houses preparing for Christmas when this happened,” she said. “To meet them, they embraced me as warmly and as welcoming as I embraced them. They said ‘we’re so glad to meet you.’”
The families she has come to know in Lockerbie have not only become friends, but also family.
‘Picture of grace’
Otenasek attributes her salvation, getting through the last 30 years, to her faith.
“My faith, my family, my friends, in that order,” she said.
None of the Otenasek’s five other children were home the night they learned of Lindsey’s death, but they came home immediately, and went to church as a family the following morning. Members of the congregation knew about the crash, but they didn’t know Lindsey was on it, she said.
During the portion of the Mass when the priest asked for prayers, Otenasek’s husband asked for prayers for everybody on the plane who had been killed, including their daughter.
“There was silence in the church. After Mass, no one moved, nobody moved. Finally we got up and everybody got up and embraced us,” Otenasek said. “That’s the way we’ve lived, with God’s help.”
Otenasek’s son, Rick, who organized the meeting, said he and his brothers and sisters are “amazed by the grace of [their mother] in the face of unbelievable adversity,” he said.
“In the face of a horrific murder, when there was so much anger and bitterness in our country, our parents refused to go there. They were the picture of grace, and they lived the gospel in front of our eyes,” Rick Otenasek said. “She has truly been an inspiration to all of us. She was never vengeful, never bitter. She said ‘This is what the Lord has done and we’ll deal with it.’”
The bicyclists are riding the 600 miles over seven days from the Lockerbie Disaster Memorial in Arlington Cemetery in Washington to Syracuse University to mark the 30th anniversary of the terrorist attack. They will arrive in Syracuse in time to attend the annual Remembrance Convocation, a week-long event at the university to honor the students who were killed.
Though Lindsey was not a student at Syracuse, the school has embraced her as one of its own, Rick Otenasek said.
Four of the bikers are emergency service cyclists and one is the head teacher of Lockerbie Academy — together they are completing a journey that was never finished, they said.
The ride started in Lockerbie, where students from the school — which rider Brian Asher said was the “nerve center and base of operations” immediately following the crash — participated by riding exercise bikes or their own bikes at the school.
The second part was a trek from Lockerbie to Edinburgh Castle in the capital of Scotland.
The ride also serves to raise money and awareness for Soul Soup, which provides mental health counseling services to 12- to 25-year-olds to reduce the risk of suicide.
Paul Rae and Colin Dorrance were born and raised in Lockerbie. They grew up playing soccer and going to school together.
Dorrance wasn’t living in Lockerbie at the time. He was training to be a police officer, but was home for Christmas and on his way to a party when the plane crashed a half mile away. Off-duty, he drove straight to where the explosion was.
“It was horrific,” Dorrance said. “There was no hope for anybody. It was a search-and-recovery operation.”
Dorrance is a friend to Peter Giesecke, who found Lindsey’s body in his backyard. Peggy Otenasek met Giesecke when she visited there after the explosion and was embraced immediately by the family.
Through social media, Giesecke’s wife contacted Rick Otenasek just a few days before the ride to let him know about it, and Otenasek said he had to organize a meeting. He and Dorrance communicated over several days to work it out, Otenasek said.
“It was unbelievable in every sense of the word,” he said. “It was so moving. Meeting people like those folks of Lockerbie is the payoff for making it through the the absolute worst day of your life.”
It was Dorrance’s daughter who “blazed the trail” for the ride, Dorrance said.
Twenty-five years after the crash, his daughter applied for the same scholarship Lindsey had received, and “spent a year having the time of her life.”
While in the United States, she met families of those who died.
His son applied and was awarded the same scholarship last year.
Since his retirement, Dorrance has done a number of charity bike rides and wanted to do this one as a token of his gratitude.
To meet the Otenaseks Friday was a wonderful experience.
“It’s emotional, really emotional,” Dorrance said. “It makes it real.”
Dorrance asked Rae to join the ride to represent the fire service. Rae is a volunteer firefighter in Lockerbie. He’s also doing it for the men he worked alongside who were on duty that night.
“The things people have done out of the goodness of their hearts,” Rae said. “And we’re here to finish the trip the rest [of them] never made.”
David Whalley was a rescue team leader in charge of the recovery and location of those who died, he said. A member of the Royal Air Force, he and his team arrived in Lockerbie within an hour of the explosion.
He’s responded to 80 plane crashes in his career.
“But I’ve never seen anything like that. Never,” Whalley said.
Though he retired from the Royal Air Force 10 years ago, he was invited on the ride because Lockerbie and the tragedy mean so much to him, he said.
“We arrived in Lockerbie at the scene of hell,” Whalley, who is from Inverness, Scotland, said. “The people of Lockerbie cooked for us. What they did for the families as they started coming, the love and care they provided the families and to us. It’s a huge honor to represent them.”
Asher has been at Lockerbie Academy, with about 1,200 students ages 2 to 18, for five years.
While the school is in a new building, it is still an intimate part of the community, he said.
The ride, he said, is about moments like Friday.
“To remember and honor those who died that night, but also to look to the future,” Asher said.
There’s a strong link between the town, the school and the families, and “I wanted to do something for the kids now and the future.”
Oliver Mundell is a member of the Scottish parliament and part of his constituency includes residents of Lockerbie, he said.
Though he was born a year after the Lockerbie tragedy, he’s been aware of it his whole life.
“We live with the legacy,” he said. “As we approach the 30th anniversary, it’s important because as people age, we lose a significant number of those with a personal connection.”
Miles Ross called himself the “token American” in the group, which includes logistics and support personnel following the riders.
“They have incredible, incredible stories,” Ross, who is from Syracuse, said. “To meet all these people this week, it’s a blessing. What they went through and the positivity they’ve made it into, it’s truly a blessing.”