Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and of families reuniting, but after 25 years, this time of year brings back horrible memories for the family of Colleen R. Brunner.
She was the young Hamburg woman, a college student, who was one of the 270 people killed in the Lockerbie terrorist bombing of Dec. 21, 1988.
And as Christmas approaches, her family members are reminded of their grief over the death of the brilliant, vibrant 20-year-old who seemed to have the whole world at her feet after spending a semester studying at a prestigious college in London.
They are also frustrated by strong feelings that justice was never served following the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed Brunner and 258 other people aboard the jumbo jet and 11 others on the ground in the small Scottish town.
And it doesn’t get any easier as they observe the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.
“The Christmas season has never been the same for us since Colleen died,” said Cheryl Brunner, 58, of North Boston, one of Colleen’s sisters. “In fact, if it wasn’t for all the little kids we have in the family, I don’t know how we’d get through it.”
“Colleen is the first thing I think about when I wake up every morning, and losing her is the last thing I think of before I go to sleep at night,” said Patricia Brunner Collins, 49, of Hamburg, another sister.
Cheryl Brunner, Patricia Brunner Collins and their brother, Bill Brunner, 54, also of Hamburg, recently talked about their memories of Colleen and expressed their disappointment that their questions about the Lockerbie bombing have never been fully answered.
“We always wanted the investigation to go all the way to the top, to find out what really happened,” Bill Brunner said. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”
He and his family have endured a long, often painful search for truth that still continues.
They watched as the only man convicted in the bombing – Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent – was released from a Scottish prison in 2009 and given a hero’s welcome in his homeland.
“We saw that on TV, all those people cheering for him and hugging him. … Of all the things we’ve been through, that was really hard to take,” said Brunner Collins.
The Lockerbie bombing is widely considered one of the 10 deadliest terrorist incidents in world history.
The 259 aboard Flight 103 were killed when a bomb exploded in the baggage area of a Boeing 747 bound for New York City from London’s Heathrow Airport. The 11 victims on the ground – all Lockerbie residents – were killed when debris from the jetliner crashed down on them from 32,000 feet.
The bombing killed 189 Americans – many of whom, including Colleen Brunner, were college students returning from studies abroad.
An honors graduate and former cheerleader at Hamburg High School, Colleen was a sophomore studying communications at Oswego State College. She had just completed a semester at Imperial College in London.
One of the most troubling reports to surface shortly after the bombing is that a number of U.S. military personnel canceled their reservations for Flight 103 because authorities had learned of a terrorist threat to blow up an unspecified Pan Am flight. “That was very upsetting to us, and it always has added to the anxiety of this whole situation,” Bill Brunner said.
He and other family members also said they have always felt they have gotten more accurate information about the bombing investigation from Scottish police than they ever got from U.S. officials.
“People from Lockerbie, including the police, have always been very kind to our family,” Brunner Collins said.
In late 1991, nearly three years after the bombing, two former Libyan intelligence agents, al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted, accused of planting the bomb.
They did not go to trial until 2000, more than 11 years after the bombing, when the case was heard by a special Scottish court in the Netherlands.
Colleen’s mother, the late Patricia Ann Brunner, and one of her brothers, Michael, attended the trial. Al-Megrahi was convicted of murdering 270 people, while Fhimah was acquitted.
The court sentenced al-Megrahi to life imprisonment in Scotland, but Scottish authorities released him on compassionate grounds in 2009 after doctors swore that he suffered from prostate cancer and his death was imminent.
Libya’s people and leaders, including then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi, welcomed al-Megrahi as a returning hero. He lived another two years and nine months before dying at age 60 in May 2012.
Members of the Brunner family were sickened by those developments, and many family members of the Lockerbie victims question whether al-Megrahi ever really had cancer, said Bill Brunner.
Leaders of the Libyan government in 2003 took responsibility for the bombing but never admitted ordering it. The Libyan government agreed to pay up to $2.7 billion to settle claims related to the terrorist act.
The mysteries surrounding the bombing are still under investigation. As recently as March, the Al Arabiya newspaper reported that British police and U.S. FBI agents were in Libya, meeting with senior Libyan officials in an effort to determine who was behind the bombing.
While all this goes on, the Brunner family cherishes its memories of Colleen. She was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters, and those left behind truly loved their little sister.
Friends are invited to a special Mass in her memory at 4 p.m. Saturday in SS. Peter & Paul Catholic Church, 66 E. Main St., Hamburg.
“She was the youngest, the spoiled baby of the family,” Cheryl Brunner said, “but we all loved her and miss her very much.”