Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

'The world is missing something'

Wall of remembrance
A wall of remembrance at Syracuse University pays tribute to the students it lost in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

They were travelling home for Christmas with all the happy expectation that such a journey carries.

A total of 35 students from Syracuse University in New York State were on board Pan Am Flight 103.

With their exams completed, they had the winter break ahead of them to catch up with family and friends and tell them about their studies abroad.

Those were conversations the students - almost all of them in their early 20s - would never get the chance to have.

On 21 December 1988, the students' home campus was winding down for winter.

When we finally began to realise that the plane had indeed gone down and crashed into the town of Lockerbie it was absolutely horrifying
Judy O'Rourke
Syracuse University
Most people had already completed their work with just a few exams left to sit.

The majority of students were no longer on site but undergraduate studies director Judy O'Rourke was still there as news filtered through of a terrible tragedy.

"We found out at Syracuse that the plane was missing - that was the first word we had - in mid-afternoon on 21 December," she recalled.

"In the days before cellphones and e-mails were so prevalent, trying to find information about what had happened was extremely difficult.

"And it became more so as time went on because Pan Am and our State Department were so inundated with calls and unable to answer almost any question."

In time the dreadful details began to emerge.

"The actual tragedy and the event was very, very confusing first of all," explained Ms O'Rourke.

Remembrance Scholar
There have been many Remembrance Scholars since the tragedy
"When we finally began to realise that the plane had indeed gone down and crashed into the town of Lockerbie it was absolutely horrifying.

"It became clear by mid-evening that there were no survivors of this awful tragedy."

Nobody knew, at the time, that the plane had been blown up and it was treated as an accident.

Ms O'Rourke said the first concern was to try to establish who exactly was on board the plane and share that information with as many people as possible.

In the meantime, the decision was taken to open the Hendricks Chapel on campus as a place for people to "be together".

"In a university the size of Syracuse you have tragedies that occur from time to time but a tragedy of this magnitude we had no precedent for," said Ms O'Rourke.

The students killed had nearly all been studying in London, along with one who had been in Florence.

More than 10,000 people attended a memorial service in their honour on 18 January 1989.

Nobody untouched

"The average age of the people on that plane was around 26 - it was just a very young group of people," said Ms O'Rourke.

"Truly, there was almost no-one on campus who wasn't touched by some of these people who died.

"Most everyone knew someone who was on the plane."

The university now awards 35 annual Remembrance Scholarships in recognition of academic achievement and community involvement.

There is also the Syracuse Lockerbie Scholarship, which sees two students from Lockerbie Academy study in Syracuse each year.

The main memorial events are in the autumn, although a small service on 21 December sees candles lit at a wall of remembrance.

It will be particularly poignant this year.

Hendricks Chapel
The Hendricks Chapel was opened on the evening of the disaster
Ms O'Rourke said: "The first feelings that I really have is for all of those people on that plane, not just our 35, but for all 270 people who were killed by this - that is something the world is missing.

"We are missing the contribution they could have made and that's sad it really is, it is unfair.

"But on the more positive side we have over 600 Remembrance Scholars and nearly 40 Lockerbie Scholars, young people who have very personally witnessed through the work they have done what this event meant to so many people."

Ms O'Rourke said there had been some positive aspects to such a huge disaster.

"It is a tremendous tragedy and it is a tremendous loss but it has also made many of us think very long and hard about what we do and how we do it and try and be better," she said.

"I think it is really important for all of us - and I tell this to my students all the time - to live our lives and keep going forward so that we can make the difference that we want to make.

"We can't do anything about the past, we can only do something about our futures."

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