All aboard Flight 103

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Author: Liam Canny ’89

On December 21, 1988, at approximately 1900 GMT, Pan American World Airways Flight 103 pushed back from the gate at Terminal 3 and began its ill-fated journey from London’s Heathrow International Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. On board this Boeing 747, the Clipper Maid of the Seas, sat 243 passengers and 16 crew, 259 souls.

Less than 60 minutes later, these 259 people would lose their lives as plastic explosives encased in a Toshiba cassette radio and stored in a suitcase in the hold would blow Pan Am 103 apart in midair. Crueler still that night would be the fate of 11 Scottish villagers in the small border town of Lockerbie, south of Glasgow. These unwary townsfolk lost their lives as the wing section of Flight 103, full of the 200,000 pounds of fuel needed for a transatlantic journey, thundered from the Scottish night and created a fireball in the street. It obliterated six houses on impact.

In all that day, 270 people from 21 countries lost their lives to a merciless terrorist attack. Twenty years ago, this event marked a shift from hijacking to sabotage as an act of terror against Western targets.

The Pan Am 103 story is replete with twists of fate. Late getting out of a recording session, the Four Tops missed the flight back home. So, too, did John Lydon, once the lead vocalist for the Sex Pistols, whose wife, Nora, hadn’t packed in time. Jaswant Busuta got drunk in the passenger lounge then sprinted to the gate to find that the aircraft’s doors had just been closed.

Not all clients of Providence cheated death, however. Five members of the Dixit-Rattan family were flying to Detroit on Pan Am Flight 67 earlier that day. Remarkably, when one of the Dixit-Rattan sons had trouble breathing, the pilot made the unusual decision to take the plane back to the gate. How delighted the family must have been when they discovered that Pan Am would put them on a later flight. The Dixit-Rattans were tragically rerouted onto Flight 103. Four U.S. intelligence officers stationed in Beirut and Cyprus also boarded the plane. More than 35 students from several universities embarked the aircraft. All of them were making the trek home for Christmas after a semester studying abroad. Destiny would be profligate.

The twists of fate that are Pan Am 103 resonate with me. I lost a friend on that flight. For him, one of the many college students returning home after the experience of a lifetime, it was the end of a lifetime. My sister, however, who was a year behind me at Notre Dame, unwittingly averted disaster. This is the story of their, and my, serendipitous connection to 103.

Twenty years ago this past October, I boarded a plane in Chicago bound for England. My sister, Eileen, was in the Notre Dame London program, and I was going to visit her. I was in my senior year, and these were heady days in autumn 1988. The Fighting Irish were 6-0, having just defeated Miami in the classic confrontation we called “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Unbeknownst to all of us at that time, the team was destined for its first national championship since 1977.

While in London, I also planned to look up two other friends who were studying there — a high school buddy, Steve Boland, and a girl with whom I had worked the previous summer, Karen Goldman. I was 21 years old, leaving the United States for the very first time. This was going to be one hell of a trip, and I couldn’t wait. My excitement was palpable as I took my seat on the United Airlines flight for Heathrow.

My sister was in class the morning of my arrival, so I took the tube to University College London, where I was to meet Karen. She didn’t go to class; that’s why I liked her. Having landed in London in the small hours of the morning, I arrived at our rendezvous point well ahead of schedule. So I took up station on a sturdy, wooden bench and reclined with my head on my backpack. This was London. This was break. This was great.

At some point, I was rather unceremoniously awoken by shouts of “Wakey, Wakey,” as the bin men on their morning route cackled and howled at my expense. At least these guys hadn’t nicked my wallet while I was sleeping, so I wasn’t too put out to be the object of their ridicule. In any event, here came Karen with her long, black curls and characteristic sideways smile.

It was 9 a.m., and after a protracted embrace we went for some breakfast at a nearby cafe. I had a big English fry-up with such local delicacies as potato waffles, black pudding, and bubble and squeak. Karen had coffee and toast, which I thought was a bit light for a Monday morning. I wasn’t sure if her light meal was because she was kosher or because she was a student at Cornell. These Ivy Leaguers always had some cause to further. Perhaps she was vegetarian this week? It turned out that Karen ate lightly because she had had a skinful of pints of cider the night before and didn’t feel too clever the morning after.

After we had a long chat, Karen walked me to the nearest tube station and traced along the station map the best route to my sister’s accommodation in Kensington Gardens. My trip had started well. It was a surreal experience meeting with a friend from home in a café in London on my first trip abroad. I was exhilarated with the possibilities that awaited me this upcoming week.

The next couple of days were magical. My sister and I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the George & Dragon pub. We visited Madame Tussauds and Waxy O’Connor’s. We saw Westminster Abbey, visited the Tower of London, drank tea at Harrods and drank pints wherever we could. We made a point of seeing Les Mis.

I even coaxed Eileen into seeing England play Sweden in an international “football” game in the old Wembley Stadium. Close to 80,000 English fans raised their voices and sang in unison for 90 minutes, which I hated to admit was better than the occasional shaking of a set of keys during the odd “key” play in a Notre Dame game. Mind you, at Notre Dame Stadium, you never saw placards on the walls like, “If you see a bomb, don’t panic. Inform a steward.”

Toward the end of my week in London, I met up with my old pal, Steve Boland. Steve lived in the Notting Hill area of London, not far from where my sister and the Notre Dame undergrads were staying. As the English would say, we were muckers (buddies). He and I had gone to an all-boys Catholic high school together in New Hampshire — Bishop Guertin. A year behind me at school, Steve was the classmate of four fellow Guertin grads who, like me, trod the path to Notre Dame: Terry Landrigan, Rob Smilikis, Pat O’Rourke and Jon Davison. Steve and Terry were particularly tight in high school, and Terry was enrolled in the Notre Dame London program at the same time Steve was in the “Old Smoke.”

It was great to see Steve, but I was lucky to catch up with him. He traveled extensively, using London as a base. We spent most of the night visiting some of the local pubs, which he had come to know well in the time he had spent in London. After dark, London Town is electric. The city bristles. Pubs hundreds of years old cause the mind to wonder what famous people might have sat in our places years before. Not to be overawed by the past, Steve and I lived for the moment. We drank in the atmosphere of girls with sexy accents, people with strange fashion sense and olde world pubs with plenty of ambiance. We also drank in some of the local brew.

Steve was great company. He had a real vitality, a lust for life. Kind-hearted, Steve had a knack for making others in his company feel at ease. In England, Steve was even more effervescent than usual as he seemed liberated by the freedom that often comes with living abroad, a chance to re-invent oneself. Steve loved London, and I could see his point. It was a euphoric time for both of us — two lads in the primes of their lives, having the time of their lives, not knowing that one of us was nearing the end of his life.

Although London is one of the liveliest cities in the world, it closes down relatively early. At 11 p.m. Steve and I heard some of the barmen calling, “Time, please.” Time indeed. As punters in the pub lingered with their last pints, Steve and I loitered. We did not want the evening to end. In time the barmen became more insistent, with quips like, “Right, folks. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” Reluctantly, we headed on our way.

At 11:30 p.m., the bars of London disgorge patrons onto its pavements, streets and alleys. London bustles as people hustle into black taxis, red double-decker buses and white tube carriages for their journeys home. The West End, where we were, literally teemed with revelers, many unsteady on their feet. Steve and I flowed through a sea of humanity back to his nearby student digs. As I told Steve good night, he gave me a big smile. “See you Stateside in a few weeks,” he said as he eased the door shut. As they say in Ireland of these fleeting moments in life, “It was an image I will take with me to the grave.”

Alive, I had to scramble to the tube. I knew from the few days I had spent in London that the tube stopped running early — close to midnight. I was cutting it fine as I bolted from Steve’s flat to the nearest underground station at Holland Park. I bounded down the stairs to try and catch the last train but missed it by several minutes. Bugger. How the hell was I going to get back to Eileen’s? Disoriented, I walked back up the stairs toward street level preparing myself to ask someone if there was a late bus that ran toward Bayswater, my sister’s stop.

Through a stroke of good fortune, I literally bumped into Lynn Bulkley, another friend from home. Lynn had gone to Mount Saint Mary’s High School, the sister school to Bishop Guertin. She was a student at Stonehill College, a sister school to Notre Dame. Like Steve, Terry, Eileen and Karen, Lynn was studying in London for the semester. It was an amazing coincidence and a lucky break for me. I hadn’t seen Lynn for several years, nor had I known that she was in London. She invited me back for tea and allowed me to crash on her couch. As I drifted to sleep, I marveled that five of us from the same small corner of New Hampshire found ourselves abroad in the international metropolis that was London.

At the end of the week, as I made the long schlep back to South Bend, I couldn’t wait to tell my mates in Pangborn about what great a city London is. Upon my return, I even made a point of trying to see some of Steve’s high school classmates at Notre Dame. The Irish football team continued their march toward immortality. Life returned to normal.

As one person’s deterministic philosophy of death goes, “the day, the date, it is all written down.” At the end of her time in London, my sister and several other Notre Dame students boarded Pan Am flight 103 bound for New York’s JFK. It was December 20, 1988. The flight took off and landed without a hitch. Had they flown a day later, Notre Dame might have suffered a calamity. Instead, Syracuse University would take the pain.

My family’s good fortune, however, was another family’s tragedy. On the next day, December 21, the Boland family lost their son, Steve. One of the 35 Syracuse students who died that terrible day, he was just 20 years old. I think I was one of the last persons from my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire, to see Steve alive. That thought weighs on me from time to time, no more so than it has these past few months. Indeed, I was anguished to discover recently that Steve’s father, John, has visited his son’s grave in Nashua, New Hampshire, every day for the past 20 years.

I now teach at an American high school situated in a leafy Surrey suburb just south of London. I have lived in the London area for close to 10 years. I know the area of West London where Steve and I met all those years ago relatively well. A few weeks ago, I watched the Notre Dame-Michigan football game in the Sports Café, a bar right across from the Notre Dame London building. The Sports Café, a ND haunt on football Saturdays, shows most of the games live via satellite. During the Michigan game, the bar was full of ND undergraduates who had that same euphoric and enthusiastic aura that enveloped my sister and Steve some 20 years before.

After watching a BBC Panorama episode about the Lockerbie bombing, I made a pilgrimage to Lockerbie to visit the Garden of Remembrance, where stands a monument dedicated to all those who lost their lives on the downing of Pan Am 103. On this hallowed ground, I was able to pay my respects to Steve and remember the good times we shared. Having been to Lockerbie, it is now even harder to think of Steve’s untimely passing as anything other than a tragic loss.

The Lockerbie Disaster, as it is known in the United Kingdom, was in the news intermittently last year as the 20th anniversary approached. The Libyan national, Abdelbasset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted for perpetrating the act of terror, maintains his innocence to this date. Last October, the BBC reported that al-Megrahi, in a cell in Greenock Prison, near Glasgow, now suffers from late-stage prostate cancer. He will likely die of natural causes.

Trying to make sense of an act of madness is a futile exercise. For me, I take solace in the fact that my sister averted catastrophe. She now has two wonderful children, and a full and happy life. For those of us who knew Steve, we can take comfort in the fact that his memory lives on in the lives of young high school graduates. Each year, Bishop Guertin High School awards its top graduate with the All-Guertin Award.

Since Steve’s death, the winner also receives the Stephen Boland Scholarship, which helps defray the cost of college tuition. As a tribute to its lost undergraduates, Syracuse University awards a one-year scholarship to two Lockerbie Academy graduates each year.

Recalling all that Lockerbie represents, it brings to mind the words of Irish poet W.B. Yeats: “All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.”


Liam Canny holds master’s degrees from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, and England’s University of Cambridge. He teaches economics at TASIS, The American School in England, where he also coaches the varsity boys’ basketball team.

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