Newsday -- Head of a Grieving Family

12-19-1991 Newsday

Head of a Grieving Family

Bert Ammerman, political point man of Victims of Pan Am 103, has become a lightning rod for the bitter frustrations that continue to afflict some relatives of the dead.

By Peter Marks. STAFF WRITER

ELEANOR BRIGHT, who lost her husband on Pan Am Flight 103, had not traveled from Brookline, Mass., to Washington to listen to the deputy secretary of state answer tedious questions about the color of the suitcase that hid the bomb or the origin of its timer or the amount of plastic explosives it contained. No, she was too angry for that.

Six days earlier, only two Libyan agents had been indicted by the United States in the 1988 bombing, and Bright was feeling deeply betrayed. So she stood up and turned the meeting upside down. Indignantly, she told Lawrence Eagleburger, the No. 2 official in the State Department, that she did not believe him: It simply could not be that Syria and Iran were not involved in the bombing that killed Nicholas Bright and 269 others.

Eagleburger exploded in anger, according to Bright and other relatives who attended the State Department session last month. "He shook his little finger at me and said, `I knew if I came here today that this was going to happen,' " Bright said. "He pounded his fist on the podium: `You haven't called my president a liar, but you've come pretty close . . .' " The next day, when Eagleburger phoned to apologize for his outburst, the call was not placed to Eleanor Bright. It went to Bert Ammerman.

* * * For three years, Ammerman, a Demarest, N.J., high school principal who has served as president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, has been the pivotal figure among the hundreds of relatives of the 188 Americans who died over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.
He's been the moderator, the negotiator, the facilitator, the person who hears all sides of an argument and distills them into a coherent position for the world to disgest. His advice and cooperation are sought by detectives in Scotland and Senate aides in Washington. In the days following the disaster, which claimed the life of his brother, he was one of the first relatives to arrive in Lockerbie, and he has been at the heart of the issue ever since.

"Bert wasn't the only one, but he was the principal one," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who worked closely with Ammerman and others in his group in the successful effort last year to enact legislation to improve airline security. "Bert's persistence is what made me so persistent. He was unquestionably the leader."

He also has had to be, at times, a provocateur, a scrappy turf defender and antagonist of any official who stood in the way of his group's objectives - as well as a lightning rod for the pent-up anger and frustration of his members. To government officials and the public, Ammerman has emerged as the embodiment of the Victims of Pan Am 103, the larger of two organizations that represent relatives. (The other, Families of Pan Am Flight 103 / Lockerbie, is run by attorney Paul Hudson of Albany, who broke with Ammerman 2 1/2 years ago after a bitter fight for control of the relatives' group).

Ammerman's group has several hundred members, of whom about 100 are active; Hudson's group, considerably fewer. "He seems to be the one," said Eileen Monetti of Cherry Hill, N.J., "who can synthesize and bring different views together." But now, as the third anniversary of the tragedy is marked on Saturday, Ammerman, 44, is finding it more and more difficult to balance the emotional needs of his members - who continue to grieve deeply over the deaths - with the leadership's political agenda.

While many of his members remain deeply bitter about the cursory way in which the State Department treated families in the days immediately following the tragedy - some caskets were picked up by relatives in areas of airports normally reserved for livestock - Ammerman has found it necessary to make peace with many U.S. officials, a development that does not sit well with all his constituents. "We have some people," one family member complained, referring to Ammerman, "who are very impressed with the trappings of power." The group has grown together in some ways, apart in others.

After the clash between Bright and Eagleburger, Ammerman found himself sympathizing less with Bright, a former board member of his group, than with Eagleburger, whom, he says, he has grown to like and admire. "Eagleburger reacted from the heart. We think the world of the guy," Ammerman said after receiving his apologetic call. "His was a normal response to a really abnormal statement."

The anniversary also comes at a time of painful reassessment for many of the families, for whom the announcement last month of the indictments of the alleged Libyan agents in connection with the bombing was both a welcome breakthrough and a disappointing anti-climax. It had become a matter of faith among many of the families, following numerous media reports as well as briefings from terrorism experts, that both Syria and Iran were involved in the bombing.

To them, placing the blame fully on the Libyans was a hollow victory. And many became even more upset after President George Bush told reporters he felt Syria had gotten "a bum rap" as a result of the allegations of its involvement. "I have talked to all the major terrorism experts, and I can't find one who buys the idea of Libya alone," said Susan Cohen, who with her husband, Dan, was once active in Ammerman's group, then joined Hudson's; they now operate on their own from their home in Port Jervis.

Their only daughter, Theodora, died in the bombing. But Ammerman and other leaders of the group say that focusing on Syria and Iran is a distraction from the real significance of the indictments: For the first time, the world is acting in concert to hold a nation accountable for terrorist acts. "This is the first documented, unequivocal case against a state that has supported terrorism," said Aphrodite Tsairis, chairwoman of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.

Still, several members of Ammerman's group said in interviews that they share Cohen's suspicion that the U.S. government was covering up Syria's role, perhaps to win President Hafez Assad's cooperation in the Middle East peace talks. The second-guessing frustrates Ammerman, who echoes Eagleburger on the point: "There is no evidence," Ammerman said, "of Syrian or Iranian involvement."
This, in turn, irritates the Cohens, who feel that Ammerman may be getting too cozy with the State Department and is trying to muzzle those who don't agree with his approach. "We are not some kind of labor movement," Susan Cohen said. "I don't think we have ever spoken with one voice. Everyone has the same claim to speak. We are all just people who had someone on the plane."

As with any large organization, let alone one composed entirely of grieving relatives, members of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 are bound to differ over how to handle the myriad issues that have arisen over the past three years. The group, which formed in the months after the bombing, has been involved in everything from securing the victims' personal effects, to employing grief counselors, to holding memorial vigils in front of the White House. It has sent delegations to London and Lockerbie and Frankfurt - where Flight 103 originated - and has spun off separate educational and fund-raising arms. It fought for the establishment of a presidential commission to investigate security procedures and pressed police for a full criminal inquiry into the bombing.

For Ammerman, a former high school football coach and teacher's union negotiator, running the organization has been a heady experience. The shuttling to Washington for high-level meetings with Justice and State Department officials, the speeches to country club women's groups and bomb-detection experts, the press conferences and appearances before Congress - all this seems to agree with him.
He loves recounting tales of confrontations with flustered bureaucrats in Washington and London that inevitably end with concessions from them. "I learned early on never to hold anyone in awe, because of the job we had to do," Ammerman said. "We're on the side of the angels."

About a year after the bombing, Ammerman said, he was offered an opportunity to meet in Syria with Ahmed Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a group that a number of terrorism and intelligence analysts have identified as being involved in the bombing. A Scottish TV station, he said, arranged the meeting and offered to fly Ammerman to Damascus. But he says he backed out after the State Department declined his request that U.S. officials follow him into Syria and apprehend Jibril. "I often say to people, how many of you have read a Tom Clancy novel?" Ammerman said. "Well, I'm living one in real life."

Although his is not a household name, Ammerman has a natural affinity for the limelight. Exactly 103 days after the bombing, in April, 1989, he organized a vigil of family members in Washington, across the street from the White House, determined to force a meeting with Bush, who up to that point had declined to meet with the families. The event drew scores of reporters and cameramen, and before the day was out, Ammerman and a delegation of families were inside the White House, meeting with the president.

Today, the emotional state of the relatives is as varied as the activities; in fact, only a small proportion of those who lost someone on the plane are actively involved in the groups. For some, the years of unremitting anger have calcified into sullen bitterness. For others, the grief is as fresh as if the news had been delivered yesterday.

Only some have worked through the pain. "Some people are tired, they're tired of fighting," said Aphrodite Tsairis. Her 20-year-old daughter, Alexia, died on 103. "The young widows are tired, too - they have to get on with their lives. People are in different places." Even within what Ammerman calls his "inner sanctum," the dozen people who compose the group's board, there are people in different places.
On the night before issuing its position paper in response to the indictments, the board spent hours in an 11-way conference call, arguing over whether to call for military action against Libya if it fails to turn over the defendants.

George Williams, an ex-Marine from Maryland whose son, Geordie, was on the plane, is one of the most militant on the board: "I want the animals who did this, each and every one of them, executed. If that sounds like hatred, it is." He argued during the conference call for placing a multi-million-dollar bounty on their heads. "I said, `Those two mean nothing,' " recalled Ammerman, who believes the indictments must keep the political pressure on Libya and its leader, Moammar Gadhafi. "And George was yelling on the phone, `Goddamn, they killed my son and they killed your brother!' I said, `George, listen to me: When Yamamoto bombed Pearl Harbor, did we put out a criminal arrest for him and want Japan to extradite him? Yamamoto was carrying out orders. These two guys were carrying out orders for Gadhafi.' "

On the other hand, there are members like Helen Englehardt, a Brooklyn woman whose husband, Tony Hawkins, was a victim. She said she is appalled at the notion of military intervention and cannot abide the idea of another innocent life being taken as a result of the bombing. Sometimes, however, the plethora of opinions can get in the way of the message. Although the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 said the military option could not be ruled out, the Families of Pan Am Flight 103 / Lockerbie said they were opposed to any military intervention.

Complicating things are the strained relations of the leaders of the two groups. Ammerman says that because of the way Hudson tried to take control of the group in 1989, "I have more anger towards him than I do anyone in government." Hudson, for his part, replied: "There is a lot of anger by relatives, and unfortunately some of that has been directed at each other. I am not angry at Bert." The antagonisms also seem to go deeper with Ammerman and his group. After the indictments came down, for instance, Ammerman said he was asked to appear on a national cable TV show but declined after he was informed that Dan Cohen would appear as well. Ammerman, who says he remains angry at Cohen for leaving the group in the first place, feels the Cohens are among a small, well-meaning group of relatives who no longer are fulfilling a positive role in the public debate: "What I would say, if I saw Dan personally, would be: Dan, I respect you . . . Go home. It's over . . . Forget about the Syrian conspiracy. Forget about the Iranian conspiracy. You've brought it to your end; you've been able to eloquently put on the table your frustration and your anger and your hurt. But you have now said enough, because if you continue this, now, for me, you're becoming counter-productive."

* * * It is, in a sense, time for everyone to move on. Ammerman, who has three daughters and a fourth on the way, says he will step down as head of the group next June. No one gets paid to run the victims' organization, and Ammerman has an 800-student high school to supervise.

The organization will go on, with new leadership, but the heavy lifting is drawing to a close. "We're burned out. No ifs, ands or buts about it," he said in an interview in his office at Northern Valley High School in Demarest. On his desk, next to the framed photographs of his wife and kids, is one of his brother, Tom, a marketing manager for a shipping company who was returning home from a business trip to Europe when he boarded Flight 103. He was 36 when he died.

"Saying that, the other part is, it's tough to give up on, because we made a commitment. I always say to politicians, your commitment is to reelection and power," he said. "We have a higher commitment. Every time we're ready to throw in the towel or back off, I say, wait a minute, I made a commitment. I mean, Tommy, did I finish it all?"

On Saturday, there will be memorial services in Washington and New York. Those who disagree on Syria and Iran and military intervention will get together and remember and pray and rail. Bob Monetti, who edits the newsletter for the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and lost a son, Richard, goes to the meetings and thinks about the issues and fills the newsletter with poems and articles and updates. But he's got a theory. All the hubbub is a mask. The lobbying and the politicking is just therapy. "As far as I'm concerned, all the political activity has been an excuse to get together," he said. "For the grief."