There are dates that will always stick in your mind. For some it's personal, like the day you were married. For others it's historical, like the day President Kennedy was assassinated. December 21, 1988, is both for methe day three of my friends were murdered on Pan Am Flight 103. |
Eric Coker. Jason Coker. Gary Colasanti.
All three names appear togetheron the passenger list, on memorials in Syracuse and Lockerbie, and in my heart.
Gary was a pledge brother of mine in fall 1987 at Sigma Alpha Epsilon. I admit I didn't know Gary that well. Other friends of mine were much closer to him. Pan Am 103 robbed me, and many others, of the opportunity to know him better.
Eric was Jason's twin brother. He was a junior at the University of Rochester, studying in London as part of SU's program. He was intelligent, extremely funny, and Jason's best friend. They came into this world together and they left it together. I met Eric through Jason, who was my roommate at Syracuse.
Jason's loss hit me the hardest. He was the first person I met at Syracuse. He was also the first person to dare me to think about the world around me. He was incredibly quick, like a comedian. He could take a person with a huge ego and cut him down to size in an instant. He enjoyed beer, women, and sports like any other 20-year-old guy. But, unlike most 20-year-olds, he was very aware of national and international events. He was well-read. He had traveled to the Soviet Union in high school. It was this passion for learning and exploring that led him to London, and eventually led me there as well.
While they were seeing the world in the fall of 1988, my friends and I were waiting for them to come home, to hear their stories and ask them questions. "How was it?" "What did you see?" "Where did you go?" "Should I do it?"
Shortly after noon on December 21, 1988, I left my apartment at Grover Cleveland and drove six hours home to Massachusetts. My semester was over. When I got home that evening, my mother showed me a card Jason had sent days earlier, wishing me and my family a Merry Christmas from London. She asked me when he was coming home. I didn't know the exact day, but I knew it would be sometime that week, and that he would call when he got settled in.
As I talked to my mother, my father was in the other room watching the news, and called us in. He said a plane had just crashed in Scotland, and there were people from Syracuse on board. All of a sudden, something felt terribly wrong.
I knew Gary was coming home that night. Earlier that day, my friend Laura told me she was going to Kennedy Airport to meet him in the evening. Could it be the same plane? I called my roommates back at school. They said they had been trying to call me, but the line was busy (my brother had been on the phone). Not only was Gary on the plane, but so were Jason and Eric. My heart sank, my face froze, and my body went numb. The only thing that snapped me out of it was that another friend of ours, Tim Houlihan, Gary's roommate, took another flight and made it home safely.|
I felt totally lost. I hung up the phone and told my parents. They were speechless. I was speechless. I left the house and drove to churchI didn't know what else to do. When I got there, I sat alone in the dark and talked to myself, to God, and to Jason, Eric, and Gary. This was the only way I could talk to them now. There would be no phone calls, no letters, no stories at Chuck's about London.
I was sad and angry. How could this happen? They were good people. Good things happen to good peopleright? Well, what the hell was this? No answersfrom Jason, Eric, Gary, or from God. It was time to grow up. My life and many other lives were never going to be the same.
I drove home, calmer, but still confused. I watched Headline News all night, staring at the flames in Lockerbie and at the grief at Kennedy Airport. I also stared at the Christmas card, from a friend who was no longer with us, a friend I could never write back to.
Several days passed. I talked with other friends from the London program, trying to find out what their semester was like and what it was like for Jason, Eric, and Gary.
I went to their funerals, met their families, and shared what I could about my experiences with their wonderful sons. To this day, I wish there was something I could do for them, because my loss and sense of pain is nothing compared to theirs.
When we returned to school in January, there was an emotional memorial service at the Carrier Dome and Hendricks Chapel. I will never forget that day. It was the first step in a long healing process. I may not have been able to see them and talk to them anymore, but I could write to them. The University provided books to write in, one for each student killed, that would be turned over to that student's family afterward.
Mike Toole, left, with Jason Coker in November 1987.
I wrote to Gary and Eric, wishing we had been given more time to get to know each other. Then I wrote to Jason, remembering the good times, and wishing he was still here. I broke down in tears. My friend Matt Allen, someone I met through Jason, consoled me. Matt was just one of many people I became closer to because of this tragedy.
The spring semester was a somber one. We all managed to get through it by being there for one another. I became tighter with my roommates and many of my other friends. We all grew up very fast in the spring of 1989.
Matt went to London in the fall of 1989. He went to Lockerbie, and told me I should go sometime. Jason never understood why I didn't want to spend a semester abroad. But I was too wrapped up in my major, my internships, my fraternity, sports, and college life in general to leave. "I'll go to Europe when I graduate," I said.
As fate would have it, I became ill in the fall of 1989, and missed the semester. I would have to graduate a semester late. I decided I would finish in London.
I had the time of my life in the fall of 1990. I saw what Jason, Eric, and Gary saw. I took classes in the same rooms they did. I lived in the same neighborhood they did. I drank in the same pubs they did.
I also went to Lockerbie. I saw where each of them landed. It is one of the most peaceful places on all the earth. The people of Lockerbie are the kindest you will ever meet.
There is no explaining this tragedy. It should not have happened. I wish it never did. Ten years later, I still miss them, especially Jason. I keep saying to myselfI wish he could see me now, he would be proud. Then I realize he can see me, because a part of him still lives on to this dayas a part of me.
Mike Toole '90 is a newswriter and sports producer at WABC-TV in
New York City.