By Debra J. Groom
It began like any other winter’s night in Oswego.
Brisk air, snow, shoppers rushing around trying to finish their Christmas preparations. Most students had left the SUNY Oswego campus for their vacations at home.
Some locals may have been heading to Syracuse as the S.U. Orangemen were playing Western Michigan in a home basketball game that night in the Carrier Dome. Others may have been attending holiday parties.
Then came the horrifying news. A terrorist bomb had blown up a plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 on Pan Am Flight 103 were lost.
It was Dec. 21, 1988 – 25 years ago today.
As bits and pieces of information trickled in that night, the news became more and more grim for Central New York’s collegiate community.
On that plane were two SUNY Oswego students returning home from their semester studying in London. Lynne Hartunian, from Niskayuna, who was set to graduate in 1989, and Colleen Brunner, of Hamburg, on course to graduate in 1990, were both communications majors. Reports state the friends had stayed in England after classes ended to visit some other countries. They were sitting together — Lynne in seat 44D and Colleen in seat 44C – as they ventured home on Pan Am 103.
The Boeing jet, called the Clipper Maid of the Seas, also carried a Colgate University student and 35 Syracuse University students returning home from their semesters abroad.
Like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 terrorist attacks, most everyone who was in Central New York Dec. 21, 1988 remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about Pan Am 103.
One is Fritz Messere, who was chair of the communications studies department at SUNY Oswego.
“When I first heard the news, I called the International Studies office,” he remembered this week. “I talked to Jose Perez, the director of International Studies. I said we know there were Central New York students on that plane. Were any of them ours?”
“I was hoping to hear the answer ‘no,’” he said.
Then the SUNY Oswego community found out the bad news.
“They were both liked very well. I remember one professor, Professor David Glick, called me in great distress. We were all terribly saddened.”
“I wrote notes to the families immediately,” Messere said. “And then we all wondered ‘what do we tell the students when they return to campus?’”
Betsy Oberst today is associate vice president for alumni relations and stewardship at SUNY Oswego. Twenty-five years ago, she also was working in the alumni office. She said at first, it was difficult to tell if any SUNY Oswego students were on Pan Am 103.
“We had 12 to 13 students studying in London that semester and they all came home on different flights,” she said. “It was devastating to learn we had lost two students.”
With few students still left on campus, the immediate impact with students was slight. She said unlike today with email, text messaging and Twitter, news did not travel as quickly from person to person.
And while Central New York was immersed in the tragedy because of the deaths of the SU, Colgate and SUNY Oswego students and a married couple from Clay, Oberst said it was possible for students who lived farther away to not even realize SUNY Oswego students were killed in the attack.
“Some may not have found out until they returned to campus in January,” she said. A memorial service for Brunner and Hartunian was held in Hall Newman Center after the new semester began.
“I remember so many people showed up that kids were standing in the parking lot unable to get in,” Oberst said. “The campus TV station videotaped it so they could watch.”
Both Oberst and Messere said Brunner and Hartunian were well liked on campus and involved in many activities. According to written reports, they both were members of Alpha Sigma Chi sorority on campus, a sorority devoted to helping others.
Brunner and Hartunian are remembered with a memorial in Penfield Library, complete with photos and a recounting of their time at SUNY Oswego, Messere said. Oberst said they also are remembered through the Alumni Association. In fact in 2014, the Class of 1989 – Hartunian’s class – will have a special ceremony remembering her during their 25th year reunion.
The Alumni Association also is still is touch with their families, Oberst said.
“It is definitely an event that had a tremendous impact on Central New York,” Messere said. “It was a terrible day.”