Amy Engelhardt was in a subway station in Boston when she discovered her friends had been killed in the Lockerbie terrorist attack.
“I walked into the station and there was a vending machine carrying the New York Daily News, and on the front page there was a picture of a woman on her back in JFK Airport, screaming ‘Not my baby, not my baby’. I looked closely and saw it was my friend Nicole’s mother,” she said. “Once I realised that, I wondered how many more people I knew were on the plane.”
There were five passengers known to Amy. All of them were Syracuse University students – there were 35 in total on Pan Am Flight 103 – returning home for the Christmas holidays following a semester spent in London at the university’s International Programs Abroad scheme.
Amy had done the same course three years earlier when she was at Syracuse and had got to know some of the younger students.
“Syracuse University in the ’80s was one of the best schools for theatre, but the drama department wasn’t all that big, so even if you weren’t besties with people, you still knew who they were,” explained Amy, who is a composer, lyricist and playwright.
“I knew five of them – Miriam Wolfe, Nicole Boulanger, Theodora Cohen, Tim Cardwell and Turhan Ergin. Miriam I knew best; I took a dance class with her, and she was like a personal cheerleader for everyone. She would run up to you and tell you how great you were.
“I had graduated the year before from Syracuse, so I didn’t know exactly who was all on the flight, but we all started calling one another – a huge phone chain – as we checked in with each other and tried to find out.
“I remember going to my friend’s house, heaving and crying. It hit us all very hard, because we were young adults and those are our formative years. It was our first 9/11.
“Nicole’s was the only funeral I was able to attend, because she lived just outside of Boston and that’s where I was at the time, so I decided that would be the trip I would make for all of them.
“Over the years, I was obsessed by Lockerbie. I read all the books and watched the documentaries. It was always there in the background, haunting the things I did. I thought about it so much that, anytime I achieved anything of import, I made sure to dedicate my work to the people who did not get to live their art.
“Even though I was doing these things, I didn’t realise how huge it was for me until 2019.”
That was the year Amy returned to the UK for the first time since she was a student in 1985. She had been hired to be part of an immersive promotional campaign for the Amazon Prime Video series, Good
Omens, and her first thought on learning she had the job was to make sure she visited Lockerbie.
“I thought it would be a one sentence summary, a chance to pay my respects for something that had been on my mind for 30 years, but it became so much more,” Amy continued. “I posted on a Syracuse online site that I was going. Kim Wickham, who was supposed to be on the flight but changed it the week before, reached out to me and said she was coming too. Then she told me she was also bringing Nicole’s sister Renee, who had never been on a plane. After the crash, the two of them had become very close.
“So, my personal bucket-list trip became a journey with these two women who I didn’t really know, but I did know it was going to pack an emotional wallop.”
It was a transformative experience for Amy. While it was poignant and at times difficult, the trip to Lockerbie was also inspiring and uplifting.
She said: “I feel like it changed a lot of things for me. To meet the people in Lockerbie, who showed the best of humanity in the face of the worst, was special. To meet the women of the town, people like Josephine Donaldson. She found 21st birthday cards in a purse in her back garden the day after the crash. The cards were for Nicole, which was astounding to me as hers was the only funeral I was able to attend.”
That coincidence was one of about 30 “follow signs” or “thin moments”, as a friend described them to Amy, that she experienced in the build-up to the visit to Lockerbie and while she was in the town, and it whetted her creative juices.
She has written what she describes as a multimedia scrapbook of the journey, a one-woman performance called Impact, which utilises video, photographs, storytelling and five original songs, as Amy’s previous and newfound connections to the tragedy yielded a new hope within her for humanity.
It receives its European premiere at this month’s Edinburgh Fringe.
“I’m deeply moved and honoured to perform it in Scotland, and it’s my deepest hope that it is accepted with the heart it is offered, which is a true thank you and a love letter for what the people of Lockerbie did for their neighbours and for complete strangers,” said Amy, who hopes to make a return visit to Lockerbie after the Fringe.
“I had written a song about Josephine Donaldson called Girl In The Garden after I saw a documentary where she described finding Nicole’s purse. Words cannot express how moving it was to play it for her when I met her in Lockerbie. The song is a centrepiece of the show.
“I continue to think about the trip every day and I feel so lucky to have done this and to have met all the people I met. As someone who is a comedy writer, it’s not lost on me that the piece I’ve written, which is the least comical and most personal, is the one that has reached the most people.
“It’s difficult sometimes to describe what the show is, but perhaps the most important thing to know – and I’m afraid I sound flippant when I say this – is it is not a grief parade. There is grief and oddly enough a parade does feature, but it is absolutely not a grief parade.
“I’m not a sentimental person, so the fact this show is so deep and meaningful… well, there you have it. I found the trip so inspiring and beautiful, and it was just not what I expected. It changed my life so much that I have made this show.”
Impact, Aug 2-28 (not 15), Gilded Balloon Teviot – Dining Room (venue 14)
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