08.10.10

Love After Lockerbie

After a horrible tragedy comes a story of hope: A daughter and stepson of Pan Am Flight 103 passengers will be married next week.

It has been, to put it mildly, an annus horribilis for the families of Pan Am Flight 103. Their wretched year began Aug. 20, 2009, when Scottish authorities granted a so-called compassionate release to the Libyan terrorist convicted of blowing the jetliner out of the sky over Lockerbie in December 1988, killing 270 passengers and crew.

But their yearlong ordeal will end on an upbeat, life-affirming note—the wedding of two young Pan Am 103 family members who met at a memorial gathering and promptly fell for each other.

Love has bloomed amid an otherwise painful period, marred by outrages large and small. Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi’s abrupt departure from a Scottish prison, which abridged a life sentence for mass murder, was garishly celebrated with a televised hero’s welcome in Tripoli orchestrated by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Click Below for a Gallery of the Lockerbie Tragedy and Sonia and Chris

grove---lockerbie

For the grieving relatives of the Lockerbie victims—including the bride and groom, Sonia Stratis and Chris Tedeschi—things went downhill from there: Megrahi, who supposedly had terminal prostate cancer and three months to live, is alive and well and living in luxury; the Brits might have let him go in return for lucrative Libyan oil-drilling contracts for mega-polluter BP; Megrahi’s cancer diagnosis reportedly was slipshod and his prognosis questionable; and, last week, the cardinal of Edinburgh chimed in to defend the mass murderer’s amnesty and condemn aggrieved Americans for their “culture of vengeance.”

Washington lawyer Frank Duggan, president of the nonprofit Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc., sees the upcoming nuptials as a welcome antidote to the frustrating news. “We are starting to get lots of calls as the one-year anniversary of the release, August 20, rolls around,” Duggan told me in an email. “Boils my blood that we should even be thinking about that cowardly little prick.” The wedding, Duggan added, “is really the kind of story I’d love to see, because we are all celebrating with them… I personally think it is a wonderful chapter in an otherwise horrible saga… Ain’t love grand?”

Sonia Stratis and Chris Tedeschi caught each other’s eye during a December 2008 gathering to remember the victims.

“I was intrigued by him,” said the 28-year-old bride-to-be, a handbag designer, describing her first encounter with her fiancé at a 20th anniversary Pan Am 103 memorial dinner at a Marriott in Crystal City, Virginia. “There were some rowdy people in the hotel, and he swooped me away from them. I appreciated him for being my little protector.”

The 33-year-old Tedeschi, an advertising executive, told me: “I don’t want to make this sound cheesy or anything, but I met her and I knew. Sonia’s personality is very vibrant, very alive. We also share a lot in our religious faith, too. And a big selling point is she’s very funny—she has a quirky sense of humor that matches up with everything else.”

The couple plans to be married in suburban New Jersey on Aug. 21, before some 225 wedding guests, including two dozen members of the close-knit Pan Am 103 community. The rehearsal dinner, the night before, will take place on the first anniversary of Megrahi’s release.

“Yes, it is the anniversary, but we can’t let it stop our lives,” Sonia told me. “He took my father from me, but I’m not going let him stop the fruitfulness of my life.” As proof of that, she doesn’t avoid airplanes and has traveled extensively to North Africa, India, and other exotic climes to pursue volunteer work as a missionary for her nondenominational Christian church in Boston. “Sometimes God has a way of bringing something good out of something so horrible as the destruction of so many lives. We’re going to get married, and hopefully have children, so new lives are going to come out of the lives that were lost.”

Sonia was 7, the youngest of three children, when her father, Elia Stratis, a globetrotting forensic accountant, was killed over Scotland. Chris was a teenager when his father, Russell, married a young widow named Kathy Daniels; her first husband, Bill Daniels, was also aboard the doomed flight.

“Last year, on Aug. 20, I just was devastated—I sat there in front of the TV crying all day,” said Kathy Daniels Tedeschi, stepmother of the groom. “It was a black day for the free world.” But a year later, “I am thrilled about this wedding,” Tedeschi told me, noting that she and her fellow Pan Am 103 widow Mary Kay Stratis, the bride’s mother, have been close friends for years, often sharing family vacations. “I didn’t even know that Chris was interested in Sonia until last January. At that point I told him, ‘If you do anything to mess up Mary Kay’s and my friendship, I’ll kill you.’ Obviously, he hasn’t done that.”

After his father married Kathy, Chris joined a blended family with three new siblings who had lost their father, and he suddenly had a personal stake in a very public tragedy. But he said he didn’t really feel it in his gut until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As a member of a National Guard unit based across the Hudson River in northern New Jersey, he participated in recovery and cleanup efforts at ground zero, spending a week rooting around the ash and rubble in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

“I always knew how my stepmom and her kids felt, but I felt displaced from the situation because it didn’t happen to me, and it was tough for me to understand the magnitude of it,” he said. “That is, until 9/11. That’s when I started to really understand, and I started to be able to really relate to my stepfamily, going through all the anger and grief. I think that’s when I started to become empathetic.”

Sonia Stratis said her future husband knows intuitively how her life has been largely defined by Pan Am 103: “Chris really gets it.”

Mary Kay Stratis, who has remained single since Elia’s death, said the wedding “means so much, there are so many layers. We’ll never know what God’s plan is for us. He does work in mysterious ways. But seeing how these two young people are getting together, and there will be many Pan Am 103 families attending the wedding—and this will be the first such wedding in our little history of 21 years—we are all amazed at the joy that has come out of something so horrendous.”

Correction: The sub-headline initially stated Tedeschi is the son-in-law of a Flight 103 victim.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.