Share this article

print logo

COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: For Hamburg family, what was lost and found in Lockerbie

Sean Kirst

Anna Marie Miazga keeps the photographs in an old and wrinkled envelope, exactly as she received them. They are in a cabinet in the living room of her home in Oneida County. She reaches for them whenever she wants to remember her daughter, or whenever she needs affirmation of the impossible.

The photos capture Suzanne Miazga's favorite moments from the fall semester of 1988, when she traveled to London with hundreds of students from Syracuse University’s study abroad program.

She planned to be gone for about three months. On Dec. 21, 1988, with 258 other people – including 34 fellow students from Syracuse - she climbed onto Pan Am Flight 103 at London's Heathrow Airport, believing she was on her way to a jubilant reunion with her family.

The homecoming never arrived. A terrorist's bomb went off in the cargo hold when the jetliner was about 31,000 feet above Lockerbie, in Scotland. No one survived. Eleven more people died when debris, heavy with jet fuel, landed in the village.

Suzanne was bringing home her photographs to show her family. They portray her in moments of reflection or celebration during her travels, such as the time she climbed onto the back of a stone lion. Amid the raw force of the blast, those photos were swept away. Most of her belongings – including Christmas gifts Suzanne wrapped for her nephew – somehow endured intact and were returned to Anna Marie.

Yet for a long time after the disaster, Suzanne's mother did not know of the existence of the water-stained snapshots.

They came to her, against all logic, from the hand of another grieving mother from Western New York.

Suzanna Miazga with her cousin, Janice DiNitto, during Suzanne's semester in England. (Family photo)

Patricia Brunner, Colleen Brunner’s mother, spent weeks preparing for her daughter’s return to Buffalo. Colleen, who had been a Student Council officer and cheerleader at Hamburg High School, was a junior in 1988 at SUNY Oswego. At 20, she embraced the chance to travel to London for a semester of studying abroad.

Her family has a classic spiral notebook in red, her favorite color, that was found in Colleen’s luggage. She used it to keep a journal of her travels. The youngest of eight children, she was close to her siblings and especially to her mother. As her family recalls, she expressed early pangs of homesickness in London, then a growing confidence.

There is one paragraph in the journal, written in September 1988, that still causes a chill for those who loved her.

“I hit the tube to (Kensington) to get our visa for France, then we went to London Student travel," Colleen wrote. "I changed my plane ticket to Dec. 21 at 8:30 p.m.!”

The decision should have made perfect sense. The later flight gave her a once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel throughout Europe with friends, a journey that included a visit to the Vatican. The young women managed to attend a public audience held by Pope John Paul II. Weeks after the disaster, the Brunners received a photograph that showed the pope taking Colleen’s hand as she stretched her arm through the crowd.

On her way home, she climbed aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in London. The bomb, as investigators would later determine, was already on board. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, was eventually convicted of 270 counts of murder by a Scottish panel of judges, who ruled he acted as an agent of the Libyan government. He died in 2012, after he was released from his life sentence in prison while he was treated for cancer.

Tuesday, four of Colleen's siblings – William, Michael, Cheryl and Patti Brunner Collins, who hosted the gathering at her Hamburg home – met to remember their sister. Surrounded by photos of Colleen, they reflected on the idea that the kid who dreamed of a career in broadcast journalism would now be 50, that almost certainly they would be aunts and uncles to her children.

For Pat Brunner, their mother, those questions equated to pain of unbearable magnitude. Her children recall how she found healing in what seems to be an unlikely place: She was embraced and comforted by the townspeople of Lockerbie, a reception that caused her to return many times.

Colleen and a friend from Oswego, Lynne Hartunian, were on the plane. So were 35 students from Syracuse University who spent the semester in London. Not long after the bombing, as the Brunners struggled with that loss, Pat was contacted by a Scottish farmer, William Irving. His farm was on the Tundergarth, a sprawling area of pastures, grazing sheep and old stone walls rolling across the hills above the village.

Irving found Colleen's suitcase on his land. He reached out to the Brunners because he wanted to be sure the suitcase made its way directly to her family. Such kindness and conscience led to a friendship. A wounded mother from Western New York learned she could relax in the sanctity of that Scottish kitchen.

Patti was three years older than Colleen. They shared a bedroom throughout their childhoods. Tales of  Colleen's laughter, of her utter joy in life, quickly bring Patti to tears. In Colleen's journal, in reflections she thought no one else would see, she wrote of how she wished her family could be with her as she saw so many wonders in Europe.

Pope John Paul clasps the hand of Colleen Brunner, December 1988. (Family photo)

In the years after the bombing, Patti accompanied her mother on several trips to Lockerbie. During one visit in 1990, she recalls, they took a walk through a Garden of Remembrance that honors everyone on the plane. Before they left, they stopped to see William Irving on his farm, grateful that he had done so much to comfort them.

In his kitchen, seated at the familiar table, he told Pat and Patti he had some neighbors he wanted them to meet.

Suzanne Miazga, at 22, was doing graduate work toward her social work degree. She spent a summer during college working at a Syracuse center where addicts and alcoholics received treatment. “She just liked helping people," said Anna Marie Miazga, who remembers how one grateful young woman, a patient at the center, showed up in line at calling hours for Suzanne.

During the months in England, Anna Marie said, her daughter began showing flashes of a new kind of maturity. Anna Marie had recently been divorced. Money was tight. She visited Suzanne once in England during that semester, before she said goodbye in the airport – only to have Suzanne run after her to offer a second hug, a moment Anna Marie now sees as a gift.

A few weeks later, Anna Marie sent a check to her daughter, trying to make sure she had enough money late in the semester to do everything she wanted to do in Europe.

Suzanne returned the check. She told her mom to use the cash for a new car battery. In one of her final letters home, she explained that she had come to a realization.

"She was going to live life to the fullest," Anna Marie said, "and not just exist."

William Irving brought Pat and Patti to a farmhouse down the road, where he introduced them to his neighbors, Richard and June Temple. The couple quietly described the night Flight 103 broke apart, how some passengers from that plane fell onto their land. "The folk," as the family called them, remained there for many days, because the fields – for investigators – were part of a vast crime scene.

Throughout that time, Richard’s son still had to go to those hills and feed their livestock. Pat always spoke with awe of how the Temples responded: Every morning, June would put on her coat and climb the hill, then kneel to say a prayer at the side of each person in the field.

Eventually, those passengers were taken away for burial, and a measure of the old routine returned to the farm. One day, Richard was busy on the farm when his son noticed some objects in a ditch, near a dirt trail. He realized they were photographs, caked with mud, stained with water.

He collected them and spread them out, around a stove. The images had been damaged by exposure, but most were in decent shape. Many featured a young woman with dark curly hair.

The only clue, the only indication of identity, was that the girl was often joined by young people wearing shirts and jackets that said, "Syracuse."

An image of Suzanne Miazga during her semester in London, among photos discovered on the Temple farm. (Miazga family photo)

Richard Temple knew Colleen Brunner attended college in Upstate New York. He asked Pat if she would take the images with her, if she would try to somehow reunite them with the right family. "Of course," Pat said. She and Patti returned to their hotel, packed the photos into a suitcase and set it out for transport to the train station.

For a reason Pat could never explain, in a story she would tell until her death in 2004, she felt an urge to take one last walk through the Garden of Remembrance, where the names of all those from Pan Am Flight 103 are inscribed on a memorial wall.

Patti, knowing they were on a tight schedule before they left, agreed to go with her.

Like Pat Brunner, Anna Marie Miazga always found a kind of peace in Lockerbie that goes beyond easy description. Her daughter's body, she said, was discovered near the doorway of an ambulance garage by one of the drivers,  George White.

In the following months, he could not push that moment from his mind. White planted a rose tree with pink blossoms on the spot where Suzanne fell. Later, he came to know Anna Marie and her family. He would serve as a guide whenever they returned to Scotland, and he learned those pink roses happened to be Suzanne's favorite color.

Eventually, after White became a widower, his long friendship with Anna Marie evolved into a romance. He moved from Scotland to Oneida County, and the couple remained together until White's death, three years ago.

Pat Brunner holds flowers by her daughter Colleen's name, at the Garden of Remembrance. (Family photo)

In 1990, Anna Marie met White for the first time during a visit to Lockerbie. She went there with her daughter Judy and Elizabeth St. Hilaire, an artist and one of Suzanne's friends from London. On a lonely evening, they walked together through the Garden of Remembrance.

In Lockerbie, residents try to comfort and shelter the families of the lost. To identify herself as a parent, Anna Marie was wearing a pin that carried Suzanne's photo. They were alone that day in the garden except for two other women, complete strangers. As those women walked past, Anna Marie and Judy heard one of them say:

“Mom. I think that’s the girl!”

It was Pat and Patti Brunner, making their quick stop.

Patti, seeing Anna Marie's pin, recognized Suzanne from the photos at Temple's farm. The Brunners introduced themselves, then quickly explained. They said the snapshots were at the hotel in a suitcase, and they feared it might already be gone. The group went to the hotel. The bag was still there.

The damaged photos, maybe 25 in all, were indeed from Suzanne's film. Anna Marie and Pat wept in disbelief as they exchanged the images. Even now, the odds of it happening in the way it did seem impossible.

Four of the seven siblings of Colleen Brunner of Hamburg, who died in the terrorist bombing of  Pan Am Flight 103 30 years ago over Lockerbie, Scotland. From left, are Bill Brunner, Mike Brunner, Patti Brunner-Collins and Cheryl Brunner. Siblings Donald, Karen and Robert were not available for the photo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

That same day? In that same garden? With no one there but them?

The two mothers, in their awe, arrived at the same conclusion.

“I don’t think it was coincidence,” Anna Marie said. She maintains there had to be something else at work to bring them all to that spot in such a way.

That belief, as she enters her 80s, gives her comfort.

Pat Brunner died at 69 in 2004. Her children are confident that she is with Colleen, that she finally received the embrace she awaited 30 years ago. They recall Colleen's last weekly phone conversation with their mother, how Pat told her daughter that only Patti would be around to join Pat in greeting Colleen at the airport.

It was part of an elaborate ruse. In that era – at a time when you could still meet airport travelers almost as soon as they walked in the gate – the entire family intended to surprise Colleen with one massive group hug of a homecoming.

She was due to arrive in the evening. That afternoon, Patti was babysitting for her brother when she saw a news flash about an airliner that fell to Earth, after leaving London.

Somehow, almost immediately, Patti knew.

The images from Lockerbie, as they came to Anna Marie Miazga. (Image courtesy Miazga family)

Several of the Brunners, including Patti, will be at Arlington National Cemetery Friday for ceremonies at a memorial cairn that honors all those lost in the disaster. The FBI also unveiled a new plaque Thursday at its Washington D.C. headquarters, recalling Flight 103.

Judy O'Rourke, a retired Syracuse University administrator who spent years advocating for the families, said this year's remembrance is intended to send a message as many parents move into their 80s or 90s:

Even as generations change, no one will forget.

Anna Marie Miazga, facing health problems that make it hard to travel, cannot attend those events. She hopes they reinforce one central truth about Suzanne and her fellow passengers, a truth she finds in that crumpled envelope of photos. If everything had happened the way it should have gone, if these joyous young people had returned with a chance to change the world?

They would be making the kind of difference Colleen Brunner put to words in London.

"I can't believe I'm here," she wrote in her journal. "Look out!"

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

Story topics: / /

There are no comments - be the first to comment