5 Scotsmen biked more than 3,000 miles to commemorate the victims of Pan Am Flight 103

The low moans of bagpipes, thousands of miles from Scotland, reverberated across Syracuse University on Friday. Two pipers, wearing traditional green and purple tartan kilts, led five Scotsmen in orange and blue cycling uniforms to the memorial they had been preparing to visit for a year.

They walked in unison, each gripping a thin bicycle. Their uniforms, still damp from the rainy ride from Utica, clung to their bodies, dirt slick on their backsides. Their eyes roamed the crowd of students, faculty, media and families. One nodded his head, and another pressed his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss.

The cyclers reached the crowd and handed their bikes to waiting students. Then, they glanced at each other and embraced tightly.

For the five Scottish men, these steps they took were the last few feet of a 3,238-mile journey that took them from Lockerbie, Scotland, to the Wall of Remembrance at SU. But they didn’t just prove it was possible to bike the distance from one continent to another. For the five cyclists, the days on the road were a time to reflect on Pan Am Flight 103, the plane that exploded over Lockerbie — a small town significant to each of them — 30 years ago.

It was a journey for their own personal memories. For the next generation of people to call Lockerbie home. For the 270 victims of the 1988 terrorist attack, including 35 students studying through SU who never made it back to school.


The journey was a bridge between the past and future, between Lockerbie and Syracuse.

It was time to come home.

The cyclists arrived on the corner of Central Park in New York City on Sunday afternoon. They took the Staten Island Ferry to The Battery and cycled up the west side of Manhattan. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

The plane crash

When Colin Dorrance joined the Scottish police on August 5, 1988, he was the youngest officer on the force at 18 years old. He started his training at the police college that month and became a full officer by October.

On December 21, 1988, Dorrance, in a collared shirt, tie and blazer, hopped into his car to travel to a Christmas party. Driving along a country road at about 7 p.m., he listened to the radio. The evening news had just finished, and the weather report was starting.

Unknown to him, a bomb had just detonated in a Pan American Airways Boeing 747-121 that was flying over the town on its way to New York City. Only when Dorrance saw the explosion, illuminating the trees on a dark Lockerbie night, did he realize something was wrong. He was witnessing what was then the most deadly air disaster in the United Kingdom.

Though Dorrance worked in a town 15 miles away, he stayed in Lockerbie as a first responder until January of the next year, working in the mortuary, processing passenger luggage and guarding the wreckage. When he went back to his usual operational duties, Pan Am Flight 103 became a subject he didn’t revisit.

Dorrance distanced himself from the victims. As a policeman, it wasn’t professional. As an 18 year old, with no wife or kids, it was easier to handle.

“You can deal with the dead bodies and you can deal with the process, but when you start to make it personal and they become real and it becomes emotional, so you kind of have to take a mental step away from it and just not go there,” Dorrance said.

It’s how he viewed the disaster for 24 years until his daughter, Claire, traveled to Syracuse as a Lockerbie Scholar, part of the one-year scholarship program created by SU and Lockerbie Academy following the disaster. Five years later, his son Andrew would do the same.

It was Dorrance’s children that made him revisit the plane crash that changed his life.

Thirty years after the disaster, Dorrance now takes the time to meet families and friends of victims. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

“When Claire got the scholarship, she then started to meet some of the parents of these bodies that I actually handled,” Dorrance said. “It’s actually been quite nice to revisit it and understand what became of that family.”

Dorrance has since hosted numerous tours of Lockerbie to SU students and faculty, including Chancellor Kent Syverud and his wife, Ruth Chen. Giving tours of the town has made Dorrance’s connection to the tragedy more personal, he said.

In 2017, Dorrance began thinking about his planned retirement from the police force. The end of his 30-year career would coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster. He wanted to remind people in Lockerbie and in the U.S. that people were still thinking about what had been lost three decades ago.

The cyclists left Central Park at sunrise to continue their journey north to Kinderhook, New York as commuters entered the city to begin their workdays. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

Building connections

It was a matter of coincidences that brought the bike journey, officially called Cycle to Syracuse, together.

When Dorrance and his wife Judith came to Syracuse last April to visit their son, they met Peg Northrup, director of operations at Hendricks Chapel. Northrup wanted to take them out to lunch at Varsity Pizza.

After Northrup parked her white Nissan Rogue on Marshall Street, Dorrance noticed a sticker on the back of the car: a bicycle with yin and yang symbols as wheels.

Colin immediately looked at the sticker and said, ‘What does this mean?’” Northrup said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m a cyclist.’ And his wife went, ‘Oh, here we go.’”

Northrup and Dorrance began chatting about Dorrance’s idea for Cycle to Syracuse, and she knew she wanted to help. Northrup became Cycle to Syracuse’s U.S. logistics coordinator, using her cycling network to plan routes and places to stay. She also connected Dorrance to key team members like Miles Ross, her neighbor and cycling friend, who became the group’s maintenance and support man.

Back in Scotland, Dorrance gathered a number of cyclists who each represented the different first responders the night Pan Am Flight 103 crashed in Lockerbie.

Throughout their journey to Syracuse, the cyclists had a few breaks to sightsee — for most of them, this was their first trip to New York. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

Paul Rae, who grew up with Dorrance in Lockerbie, represented the fire services. David “Heavy” Whalley was a team leader of the Royal Air Force’s mountain rescue service the night of the disaster. Brian Asher, headteacher of Lockerbie Academy, represented the relationship between Syracuse and Lockerbie. David Walpole was a banker who helped with the disaster relief fund in 1988 and is now a paramedic. He represented the ambulance service.

Only Walpole had cycling experience. The other four trained specifically for Cycle to Syracuse.

“If we’re all five professional cyclists, that might be a lot easier,” Dorrance said in October, before the ride began. “But we are not. We are still very much learning how we do this, which makes the journey that we are doing a challenge.”

As the cyclists biked toward the Hudson Valley, they traveled over the George Washington Bridge, through New Jersey and up the west side of the Hudson River. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

Dorrance was Cycle to Syracuse’s main organizer. He developed each stage of Cycle to Syracuse to encompass the phrase, “Look Back, Act Forward.”

During September and October of the journey’s first stage, the five cyclists completed more than 2,600 miles of the journey and visited 12 primary schools in Lockerbie, explaining the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing and hosting bike rides. Cycle to Syracuse also started a campaign to raise money for Soul Soup, a local charity, to bring a mental health counselor to Lockerbie Academy.

For the second stage of the trip, the team organized an 80-cyclist ride from Lockerbie to Edinburgh Castle, followed by a reception in the castle’s Great Hall.

The third stage began on Oct. 26. The cyclists left the Lockerbie Memorial Cairn in Washington, D.C.’s Arlington National Cemetery and biked 600 miles through Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City to arrive in Syracuse on Thursday, representing the journey to bring the student victims home.

Cycle to Syracuse marked many of the men’s first times to New York and the U.S. They passed through the Hudson Valley, their ride along Route 9 framed by hills of trees with golden, sunset-colored leaves. They cycled through rural towns and major cities. Cycling gave them a chance to enjoy the sights of the U.S. at a slower pace.

The cyclers often pulled over to scenic locations, such as the Hudson Valley, to pause and enjoy their journey. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

The ride wasn’t without stress. On the first day of cycling in Washington D.C., the team was extremely disjointed, said Ross, the support van’s driver. The van, which carried bicycle maintenance supplies and drove along the shoulder of roads, was supposed to closely follow the last cycler of the group to protect them from other cars. He often couldn’t find the group because the GPS malfunctioned and the cyclists weaved in and out of traffic, Ross said.

The team’s coordination eventually improved, but they faced challenges including physical illness and rain. The hustle of some of the mornings, with quick breakfasts and media requests, were not conducive to a good day of cycling, Ross said.

Whalley got sick and sat in the van for a few days. When he checked into an emergency room in Syracuse, he found out he had bronchitis. Asher also sat out most of one day’s journey because he felt ill due to lack of sleep and nutrition. He accepted he needed a day of rest to be able to complete the rest of the journey.

Weather was also a concern. Several days of cycling were cold and rainy. If the cyclists took too long to rest, they could lose body heat and focus. When they were recharging with food and drinks, they sat in a heated RV.

Some families came to meet the cyclers at major stops, such as Jane Davis, who lost her daughter, Shannon, one of the 35 SU students, in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

The cyclers also didn’t plan for the emotional strain that came with meeting victims’ families. Some visits were planned, like with the Monetti family in Philadelphia, who lost their son Richard, an SU student, on the plane. Others were not.

Kelly Halsch and her father, Paul Halsch, who lost numerous family members in the bombing, flagged the cyclers on the side of the road as they biked through Maryland. Some people are only now coming to terms with memories from 30 years ago, Whalley said.

As a result, the cyclists often didn’t bike the planned number of miles per day. Instead, they’d hop into the support van, RV or pickup truck to arrive at the next destination.

“You cannot flash by a relative who’s lost four people, including an unborn child, and say ‘We’ve got cycling to do,’ so something has to give,” Whalley said. “And a huge give is what we are here for. What we are here for is getting kids home.”

Cycle to Syracuse garnered attention from governments and residents alike. Oliver Mundell, a Member of Scottish Parliament for Dumfriesshire, explained Cycle to Syracuse’s mission on the floor of the Scottish Parliament. Mundell also flew to the U.S. and met the cyclists during some stops, like in New York City and Syracuse.

The cyclists and support team met with Kim Darroch, the British Ambassador to the U.S., while in Washington, D.C. SU’s Lubin House also hosted a reception with the British Consul General of New York, Antony Phillipson.

Asher, the headteacher of Lockerbie Academy, sat out part of Tuesday’s journey through the Hudson Valley. As the team planned to send its funds for a mental health counselor to the school, Asher knew he needed to take a break as that was what he would instruct someone else to do. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

The team organized access to some of Scotland’s most iconic landmarks. The team’s Oct. 13 ride to Edinburgh Castle was special, Asher said, because the castle is a symbol of Scotland for both natives and foreigners. The castle’s Great Hall is rarely used for public receptions. The significance of cycling through the capital city with a pipe band escorting them through closed-off streets was not lost, Asher said.

The weather made the 70-mile journey to the castle difficult. It was raining so hard that the cyclists’ feet were submerged in puddles for complete pedals. But the number of friends, family and other community members on the streets, waving and shouting despite the rain, made him proud, said Rae, who grew up in Lockerbie.

Government officials and Scottish residents weren’t the only ones following Cycle to Syracuse. In the U.S., people on the street noticed the team’s bright orange sweatshirts and Scottish accents and asked about what they were doing, Walpole said.

On the final day of biking from Utica to Syracuse, the five cyclists received a police escort. Cars honked and drivers waved, and the cyclists waved back.

Symbolic of Lockerbie and Syracuse, the cyclers arrived in Syracuse on a cloudy, rainy afternoon. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

“I remember day one, saying to Colin, ‘These people know who we are,’” Walpole said. “They’re not just tooting the horn, waving.”

Families of victims traveled to New York City, some from as far as California and South Carolina, to meet the cyclers as they arrived in Central Park. But many of the connections were coincidental. The cyclists met a construction worker in front of the team’s Washington, D.C. hotel that had a relative on Pan Am Flight 103, Walpole said.

At SU, Larry Mason, a professor of photography and the Remembrance and Lockerbie Ambassador, distributed buttons to SU community members representing all 270 victims of the Pan Am Flight 103 attack. Asher received a button with the name Judith Bernstein Atkinson.

During a Friday reception at SU, Asher was speaking to a couple when the man looked closely at Asher’s button. Asher’s button had the name Judith on it, which happened to be the man’s wife’s sister’s name. Judith had also studied to be a teacher.

The cyclists met an 85-year-old woman on the road. This woman, Whalley said, told the cyclists that she can die happy now that her daughter has come home.

“Beautiful, beautiful woman. And I kind of looked at her,” Whalley said, “and just started crying.”

The five cyclists attended SU’s annual Rose Laying Ceremony, where they each laid a rose in memory of those who were lost. This year, Larry Mason, professor of photography and the Remembrance and Lockerbie Scholar, handed out buttons for the other 235 non-SU victims of Pan Am Flight 103. Each of the cyclists received a button. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

A new season

As important as it was to honor the victims from 30 years ago, the cyclists also understood the importance of looking forward. It’s important for future generations of Lockerbie children to know the history of the town, Asher said, but also to focus on the positive connections that came out of the disaster.

During the first stage of Cycle to Syracuse in September, the cyclists visited Lockerbie schools to teach students about Pan Am Flight 103. Many of the children already had some knowledge of the disaster, Dorrance said, which took the cyclists by surprise.

Cycle to Syracuse also exceeded its goal in raising money for a local charity called Soul Soup. The team reached its target of raising 10,000 pounds before even reaching Syracuse. The money will bring a mental health counselor to Lockerbie Academy, which currently doesn’t have one, Asher said.

It’s important to help children to talk about their problems if needed, he said. It was an especially personal goal for Asher himself as his daughter has struggled with mental health issues, he added.

“I now want to make sure with any opportunity I have that I plug any gap that there might be to help youngsters who are in that sort of difficult place,” Asher said. “We can see physical health — it shows on the outside. Mental health doesn’t. And that’s why we need to work harder to make it easy for kids to get help.”

Callum Moffat was one of two bagpipers who followed the cyclists from Lockerbie to Syracuse, playing at key stops. Moffat wrote an original piece, “Forward,” and gave the sheet music to Dorrance. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

When Dorrance attended the annual Remembrance Week Rose Laying Ceremony, he wore his formal black police uniform, complete with a hat and white gloves, for the last time. Despite officially retiring in August, Friday marked the end of his 30-year career. Dorrance didn’t feel as emotional as he thought he would, he said. Rather, he felt content and at peace.

“Just like the leaves are falling from the trees here, there’s a time for a different season,” Dorrance said. “And I feel that I am going into a different season.”

Cycle to Syracuse has helped strengthen the bond between not just Syracuse University and Lockerbie Academy, but Syracuse and Lockerbie, Dorrance said. The journey has created dialogue and brought forward people who haven’t spoken about Pan Am Flight 103 before.

As parents of two Lockerbie Scholars, Colin and Judith Dorrance have visited SU before Cycle to Syracuse. This was their first trip without visiting their children and Colin’s last time in uniform. Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer

When the cyclists visited the Lockerbie schools, they spoke to children as young as 4 to 18 years old, Dorrance said. This should ensure that for years more, students will understand the significance of Pan Am Flight 103. The students took photos with a shepherd’s crook, a gift the cyclists were bringing to SU that represents the town’s sheep farming history, Dorrance said.

During the reception of the cyclists’ arrival, Dorrance presented the crook and a signature book, which was signed by all the students the cyclists visited in Lockerbie. One day, Dorrance hopes those students will visit Syracuse to find their names.

As Dorrance spoke — surrounded by the cyclists and the support team, university officials, faculty, students and members of victims’ families — the leaves from the trees rustled in the breeze. They were falling.

Cover photo by Alexandra Moreo | Senior Staff Photographer