Flight 103 families get new reminder of tragedy

Posted: July 29, 2011

Twenty-three years later, they're still trying to put the tragedy behind them.

But the families of the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, seem to be always faced with reminders, as they were this week when Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of 270 counts of murder in the case, appeared at a rally to support Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 terrorist attack, walked free from prison in 2009 after the Scottish government released him on compassionate grounds, presuming he had only three months to live due to prostate cancer.

Nearly two years later, he remains alive. He served eight years of a 27-year sentence.

Libyan state television showed Megrahi, in a wheelchair and looking frail, at a gathering to support Gadhafi, who has viciously fought to hold on to power since rebels began fighting his rule in February.

"I try not to let it get to me anymore," said Kara Weipz, 38, a Mount Laurel resident whose brother Rick Monetti was killed in the bombing. "It was so bad when they released him from jail, I promised myself never to let myself get that way again."

Weipz called Megrahi's appearance "ridiculous and asinine," although she said it did not surprise her.

On Thursday, the reactions of family members ranged from frustration to resignation as they tried to keep the news from affecting their lives.

Pan Am 103 exploded four days before Christmas 1988. The plane, flying from London's Heathrow Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, held 270 passengers, including 38 from New Jersey and 14 from Pennsylvania.

Many of the victims, like Weipz's brother, were Syracuse University students returning home for the holidays.

Some U.S. lawmakers accused the United Kingdom of "cutting deals" to free Megrahi, prompting calls in Britain this year for an independent inquiry into Megrahi's release.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both New Jersey Democrats, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in June calling for the U.S. government to do more to address the situation.

"The families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 have suffered so much already, and the images of Megrahi at a pro-Gadhafi rally in Libya only adds salt to their wounds," Lautenberg said this week. "Parading one terrorist out to support another is an affront to justice and further affirmation that Megrahi was released from prison on false pretenses."

Rick Monetti's mother, Eileen Monetti of Cherry Hill, said putting the freed terrorist back in prison mattered less to her than serving justice on Gadhafi.

Megrahi "was the triggerman," she said. "It's like a mob situation. You want to get the guys who are higher up."

Glenn Johnson, 69, a Greensburg, Pa., resident who lost his 21-year-old daughter in the Lockerbie bombing, said he felt angry and devastated by the convicted terrorist's release from prison.

"We weren't in favor of revenge," he said. "We wanted justice in the courts all along, and it was taken away from us in the end."

Johnson, who once served as chairman of the support group Victims of Pan Am 103, said he now distances himself from matters involving Megrahi.

"I don't really follow it all," he said. "I'm aware of these things that happen, but I try not to get too involved, because it upsets me too much."

Johnson remains active with the victims group, but now serves as treasurer.

Weipz, a married mother of three, served as president of the organization for six years. She said she eventually felt the need to step down and focus on other priorities.

"I had to take a step back for my personal well-being and sanity," she said.

Libya paid about $2.7 billion to victims' families after President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2008 allowing the North African nation to settle lawsuits resulting from the Lockerbie bombing.

The Johnsons used a portion of their compensation money to sponsor a room honoring their daughter at a new theater and music building on the Seton Hill University campus in Greensburg, where she attended school.

The family has also dedicated money to help construct a new library in its hometown, to pay university students who work with a summer program that helps underprivileged children pursue their interests, and to provide scholarships to high school and university students.

Weipz used a portion of her family's compensation money to construct a new building for the Schoolhouse nursery school, which she founded three years ago inside a church in Cherry Hill. The new facility will open in September in Mount Laurel.

The Monetti family also makes annual donations to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, as well as organizations dedicated to feeding the hungry and a group that provides housing for the developmentally disabled.

"That's the best way to honor those we've lost," Weipz said. "We need to keep moving forward.

"I try not to focus on that murderer walking free in Libya."

Contact Joshua Adam Hicks at 856-779-3893 or jhicks@philly.com, or follow @Reporter_Hicks.

comments powered by Disqus