George Harvey Williams is a hard man.
His unflinching resolve is rooted in a Highlandtown childhood, was strengthened during the Depression years, and crystallized when he became a scout sniper for the Marine Corps during the Korean War.
That determination has carried Williams through the past 11 1/2 years as he awaited justice for the death of his 24-year-old son in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. It will be with him today as he flies to the Netherlands for the trial of two men charged in the attack that claimed 270 lives.
"The worst thing that ever happened to us happened to us on Dec. 21, 1988," Williams says of himself and his wife, Judy. She will accompany him on the trip from their home in Joppatowne. "Nobody can imagine what it is like to lose a child, especially to murder, and especially to a murder that somebody planned."
As the Williamses always do when they travel, they'll arrive at their hotel, unpack photos of their son George and place them on the nightstand.
Coming face-to-face with the men suspected of killing his son doesn't much worry George Williams. It can't compare with the pain he has already endured. He welcomes the trial, expected to begin Wednesday and involve almost 1,300 witnesses and be the longest and costliest in British history. He views the suspects, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, alleged former Libyan intelligence agents, simply as instruments for the person Williams is after: Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi.
The need for truth drives Williams to push on, to continue seeking answers. When he tires of the fight, he pulls out an autopsy photo of his son that, to this day, Judy still has not seen.
"I just grit my teeth and I say Kadafi ... I'm going to get you," Williams says. "It bolsters my resolve."
Williams is president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, an organization representing about 160 of 189 U.S. families who lost loved ones in the bombing. Over the years, the group has pushed for sanctions against Libya and stronger regulations around airline safety and national security. Some of the group's members felt the suspects would never be arrested, but not Williams.
"I know that somewhere along the line, if the cause is just, we can do anything," he says. "It's not true of any other country in the world, but it is here."
George Watterson Williams, named after his father and his great-grandfather, was a miracle in his own right. George and Judy had tried for 10 years to have a baby, and there were several miscarriages before the arrival of their only child on May 17, 1964. He was, Williams says, "our joy."
Geordie, as he was nicknamed, was a bright boy whose SAT scores were among the highest at Joppatowne High School, where he graduated before earning a degree in computer science and economics at Western Maryland University. As a teen, he excelled at track and field and liked playing basketball and going fishing in local waterways with his buddies. Outgoing and popular, Geordie often had friends over at the house, including some his parents are still in touch with. After Geordie died, Williams says, about 30 young men and women told him Geordie had been their best friend.
In the living room of the Williamses' home, the only house Geordie lived in before moving away to serve in the Army, a photograph on a bureau shows father and son on a fishing trip in Key West, Fla., standing beside a 7-foot sailfish. On the wall at the foot of the staircase hangs an airbrushed image of Geordie and a framed collection of his military medals: his silver first lieutenant's bar, one for learning to fly a helicopter, and the Purple Heart, awarded to those killed or wounded in action or killed in a terrorist act. A U.S. flag flown over the Capitol a few weeks after Geordie's death is folded into a wooden frame.
Williams won't let a visitor see Geordie's room upstairs; he considers it private. But he says it remains much as it was when Geordie died, still holding drawers full of his clothes, an old stereo, a deflated football. Williams doesn't understand how some families, after losing a child, can just pack up and move.
"We prefer the reminders," he says. "They remind us of the good times."
Those memories are especially precious now. Williams, who worked in real estate for 35 years, regrets the Saturdays and Sundays spent at the office instead of with his son. In the summer of 1988, the Williamses visited Geordie at the base where he was stationed in Germany. The family spent several weeks traveling through Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
"I'm so glad we went," Williams says. "That would have been terrible if we hadn't seen him."
The last time the couple saw their son was at the Frankfurt airport as he and Judy boarded a flight back to the U.S. About six months later, Geordie was on his way to that airport to fly home for Christmas when he got caught in traffic. He called to tell his mother he'd missed his plane but not to worry; he could get on another Pan Am flight.
That December day in 1988, Williams was at work when Judy called to tell him a plane had crashed in Scotland. He rushed home and started making calls. Five excruciating hours later, they learned Geordie was dead.
Today, a 7-foot Celtic cross marks Geordie's grave at the cemetery adjacent to the Church of the Resurrection of Joppa. A few miles away, his parents' house seems quiet and empty. Williams and his wife found working difficult after Geordie died and took early retirement. They fill the emptiness with family functions -- birthdays, kids' sporting events, celebrations when babies are born. They are particularly close to their great-nephew Jordan, called Jordy in memory of the Williamses' son.
"We fawned all over him as if we were grandparents, which we never will be," Williams says.
As for whether the upcoming trial might bring closure, that doesn't exist for Williams.
"When people ask me that, I always tell them I'll get closure when they put the lid on my casket," he says. "There's no such thing when you lose a child. You live with it. You don't cry as often. But the pain never goes away."