Nearly two years after the bombing, the one thing the victims' families still agree on is that they don't need any more pain. They say this, as they salt their wounds.

Once they were strangers drawn together by tragedy. After their parents, children, brothers and sisters were killed in the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, they coalesced into one of the most successful lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. An organization representing fewer than 200 families, they worked effectively for tighter airport security, pressuring members of Congress, stalking world leaders from Washington to Malta, wielding their grief like a weapon.

Now they are two groups, divided by rancor. Mourning parents are sniping at mourning widows. There have been disagreements over matters both material and petty, over tactics of lobbying, control of funds, logos on letterheads; there are even disputes over hierarchies of loss -- which hurts more, the death of a son or the death of a sister?

This comes on what could be the eve of their triumph, as Congress prepares to vote on the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, legislation that would create new offices to oversee airport and airline preparedness against terrorism. The bill was born of their anger and shaped by their activism, but it may now fall victim to their bickering. What had been a clear and effective call for reform is now muddied by discord.

Last month, at a sparsely attended House hearing on the bill, the long-simmering schism came into the open. It was a significant moment; the Bush administration, which has never backed the bill enthusiastically, had asked for it to be tabled while the government worked on its own plan. What would the victims' families say?

High school principal Bert Ammerman of Rivervale, N.J., who lost his brother on the flight, rose in favor of the legislation.

Identifying himself as president of the "largest" group of families of the victims, he urged its passage essentially intact, and soon. "This new legislation," he said, "is instrumental to initiating change."

Next to Ammerman sat a thin, bookish, bespectacled man -- attorney Paul Hudson of Albany, N.Y., leader of a breakaway group of victims' relatives. Once allies, he and Ammerman barely acknowledged each other.

Hudson, who lost his 16-year-old daughter on the flight, emphasized to lawmakers that his group was the largest. Then he said:

"HR 5200 is, we believe, weak, flawed and inadequate. We call on this committee to strengthen it, or defeat it."

So much for solidarity.

What happened to the families of the victims of Flight 103 was, perhaps, predictable. Similar splits have occurred within other activist groups organized in response to tragedies, according to John Stein, deputy director of the National Organization for Victims Assistance. It happened to the families of Vietnam POWs and MIAs, to other airline disaster groups and to the families of the Iranian hostages. Grieving relatives begin by reaching out to one another to extract meaning from senseless loss; the solidarity tends to survive until that basic need has been met, and then human nature -- in all its complexity -- takes over.

In the first days and weeks after the disaster, the hollow-eyed families of Flight 103 victims hugged each other ferociously, forging friendships they said would last a lifetime. When they came apart, it was with equal ferocity.

Johanna Hassimi, an Ohio homemaker who lost her foster brother on the flight and is aligned with Paul Hudson's faction, flew to Lockerbie this summer for a memorial service.

"I went, hoping that this would be a healing," she said. "Let's become one again.

"There were people I had known, friends that I had made, who I would say hello to, or put out my hand, and I was not acknowledged. I went to the memorial at Tundergarth and was asked to leave by a member of their group."

She believes the split may have been inevitable: predetermined, scripted by pain.

"It's like there was so much anger and so much hate that it had to go somewhere."

From Grief, Organization

It was the most deadly terrorist attack ever directed at American civilians, and -- in the grisly actuarial accounting of disasters -- it could scarcely have happened at a worse time or place. The Boeing 747 en route from London to New York on Dec. 21, 1988, was peopled mostly with children and young adults hurrying home for the holidays; 35 were students from a Syracuse University study-abroad program. The average age of the dead was 27.

The bomb had been hidden in the cargo hold, in a portable cassette player filled with plastic explosive. Detectives theorize that it was smuggled aboard the flight in Frankfurt, West Germany, as a reprisal for the inadvertent American downing of an Iranian Airbus in the Persian Gulf six months before.

That was back when tensions in the Persian Gulf were still remote to Americans like Glenn Johnson, a Teledyne Inc. executive who lives in Greensburg, Pa.

Johnson took the afternoon off to shop for a gift for his 21-year-old daughter, Beth Ann, who would be returning that evening from a semester of study in London. It was the first time Beth Ann had ever planned a major trip without asking her parents' permission, and she had raised the money for it herself. In a sense, it had been her first act of adulthood. Johnson was proud.

As he pulled up to his house, the garage door opened and his wife stumbled out, weeping.

Beth Ann's present, a pink and gray jogging suit, remained in the car for days, forgotten until the parents had to decide on a burial outfit for their only daughter.

As weeks went by, the Johnsons learned from media reports that Flight 103 had not succumbed to mechanical failure, or pilot error, or wind shear, or any of the other usual suspects in airline disasters. Slowly the facts would emerge: The flight was blown up, by persons unknown, in an easy breach of security procedures at two major international airports. Bags had not been X-rayed; luggage had been left unattended.

That was the backdrop when some of the families of the victims of Flight 103 met for the first time in January 1989 in Syracuse, N.Y., at a memorial service for the 35 students. They were still more numb than angry; they had not yet planned an organized lobbying effort. A few began talking, informally, unofficially, about "doing something."

A month later, they did. Meeting in a restaurant off Route 17 near Paramus, N.J., some 100 grieving family members elected attorney Paul Hudson as chairman of their steering committee. Hudson was the logical choice; he had served 10 years as general counsel for the New York State Crime Victims Compensation Board. The group took a name, chosen by Hudson: Victims of Pan Am Flight 103. Bert Ammerman, the voluble high school principal, was informally designated the group's media spokesman and chairman of its political action subcommittee.

The organization's goal was to spur legislation to tighten security measures at airports worldwide, and to force the U.S. government to mount a serious investigation into how the disaster had been allowed to happen.

If the group lacked a smoking gun, a sharp focus for its outrage, it was provided a few weeks later. Newspapers reported that 16 days before the flight, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki had received an anonymous threat that a bomb would be placed aboard a Pan Am jet leaving Frankfurt for New York.

The Federal Aviation Administration had issued a security bulletin, which was then distributed by the State Department to embassies and certain U.S. government representatives overseas, but not to the general public. The doomed plane, flying at a peak holiday time four days before Christmas, was curiously only half filled, leading to speculation of a "double standard" for government personnel who benefited from the warnings the 259 passengers and crew never got to see.

The families were irate.

"They blew up the wrong plane this time," said postal employee George Williams of Joppa, Md., who lost his son, a would-be Army pilot. George Jr. grabbed Pan Am 103 in Frankfurt after a traffic tie-up on the autobahn made him miss his direct flight to Dulles.

"It's not my right to forgive someone for killing someone else. ... That's up to God, not me," said Williams, who is often told by friends that it is not healthy to be vengeful. "I consider myself to be His instrument of vengeance, and I have no idea of giving up until these animals who did this to my son are stopped."

"The politicians," he said, "would all like to forget about this, but we won't let them."

Heated rhetoric aside, Williams was basically right. The politicians did want to forget the whole thing. The Flight 103 disaster, wrote syndicated columnist Jack Anderson in January, posed an embarrassing problem for the Bush administration. Taking on the Iranian government at that time was politically inopportune. Anderson reported that Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher secretly agreed to keep the investigation "under wraps," to play down the Iranian connection.

If world leaders wanted it to go away, the members of this passionate new lobbying group would not let that happen. They showed up at public meetings wearing buttons bearing pictures of their dead, a chillingly effective strategy. They dispatched a team to Malta last winter, in an unsuccessful attempt to bring their message before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush. In April, Williams and another member of the group dogged Bush and Thatcher to their summit in Bermuda and pestered them for an audience, eventually extracting a public acknowledgment of their concern.

To the families, this was gratifying, but way too late. They had worked up a boiling rage at the State Department, which, in the days and weeks after the tragedy, had treated them with an astonishing lack of diplomacy.

Confused family members report that they phoned the special government "24-hour hot line" for information, but no one answered. "Then they'd call you up and say, 'We found your child's remains,' and sign off, 'Have a nice day.' " said Judy Williams, mother of the 24-year-old Army first lieutenant who switched to Flight 103 at the last minute.

Aphrodite Tsairis of Franklin Lakes, N.J., recalls the trauma of seeing the body of her 20-year-old daughter, Alexia, being shipped out to a bleak warehouse at the back of New York's Kennedy Airport and hoisted off a forklift "like she was cargo" amid "the smell of rotting food, and the livestock."

Against the more lethal matter of lax security, these insensitivities may seem trivial, but they are what first impelled the families to action, and to question their government.

"Actually, they did us a favor," said McLean resident Kathleen Flynn, who lost her 21-year-old son. "If they treated us well ... we might have all just settled down in our grief."

In the first few days, she said, when the government was involved in identifying the bodies, "they must have called for his Social Security number forty thousand times." When she asked what that had to do with identifying her son, they equivocated. "Then they told us to fax them his dental records, but of course we found out that X-rays do not fax."

The Flynns figured out that footprints routinely made after an infant's birth are ideal identification. They sent for the records and had them dispatched to Scotland. "Trying to think of how to identify these bodies should not be up to the family members," said Flynn. "We just wanted him home."

Flynn was a member of the first victims group, but broke away with Paul Hudson a year ago, when he left in anger.

She has since split with Hudson's group as well.

"Personality differences," she said.

She doesn't want to talk about it.

Unity Turned Conflict

In the early days, there were three dragons to be slain: the unknown Middle Eastern terrorists who planted the bomb, the airline that let its guard down, and the U.S. officials who -- in the eyes of the victims' families -- got warnings, informed their own people and let others die.

Over the months that followed, a fourth dragon was born. Its name was either Ammerman or Hudson, depending on whose side you were on.

"Believe me, the pain caused by all of this is second only to the bombing itself." -- Paul Hudson

"It's a shame, it really is a tragedy." -- Bert Ammerman

Little by little, a gulf developed between the outgoing, upbeat Ammerman, who skillfully worked the media, and the methodical, melancholy Hudson, who toiled anonymously as a lobbyist, shuttling between Albany and Washington, extracting support. Both men worked tirelessly, but Ammerman was getting all the ink. There were muttered resentments. As issues began to crystallize and people took sides, the two men inevitably became the lightning rods.

"If you disagree with Paul, you become a nonperson," said Peter Lowenstein, a businessman from Morristown, N.J. "He just stopped speaking to me since we disagreed over one point." The point of contention was so trivial, he said, he doesn't even recall what it was.

Hudson is misunderstood, countered Alexandria resident Rosemary Wolfe, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who lost her stepdaughter in the crash. "Paul is a very mellow person who doesn't want conflict."

Conflict found them nonetheless.

As political action committee chairman, Ammerman made several moves on his own, including sending a letter to Bush (Hudson called it "obsequious") and arranging an April 1989 meeting between Ammerman and Secretary of State James Baker. Ammerman says he had cleared the meeting with Hudson first. Hudson says that's not true, and at the next group meeting, he called for Ammerman's "censure."

No vote was taken, but from that point on, Ammerman and Hudson stopped speaking to each other. People started taking sides.

When Ammerman's faction sent out a mailing on media rights, many of the families -- still adjusting to their grief -- were aghast.

"They wanted us to sign over any TV rights or movie rights over to the group," recalled Siobhan Mulroy, a Long Island, N.Y., woman whose father, brother, sister-in-law, aunt, uncle and teenage cousin died on Flight 103. "They sent us all the actual legal documents to sign! And this was very early in the situation, and no one was talking about earning money from TV." The mailing was swiftly withdrawn, but outrage lingered.

In June, the executive board of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 met to formally select a president. According to Rosemary Wolfe and Johanna Hassimi, both Ammerman and Hudson had agreed not to run, to help cleanse the ugly atmosphere. But at the last minute, Ammerman and Hudson were each nominated. Hudson quickly withdrew his name.

"We all looked at Bert, to see what he would do, but he just sat there with his arms folded," Hassimi said.

Ammerman was elected over Victoria Cummock, a resident of Coral Gables, Fla., who was unfamiliar to many of the families. Cummock, who lost her husband on the flight, was defeated by one vote. Ammerman's.

Ammerman denies pulling a dirty trick, saying he never agreed not to run. "Never in a million years," he said. "I never agreed with Hudson -- Hudson and I weren't even speaking to each other." The consensus of the people present, he says, was that Hudson was overbearing and had to go.

When Ammerman was elected, Glenn Johnson recalls, Hudson stuffed his papers in his briefcase and walked out.

Shortly afterward, the group's newsletter carried the terse announcement that Paul Hudson had "resigned." Actually, he hadn't.

"We resigned him," says Ammerman.

Triumph and Tactics

On Aug. 4, 1989, Bush signed an executive order establishing the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, to examine aviation problems in general and their relation to the destruction of Flight 103 in particular. It was the group's first major triumph, and its last as a united front.

Hudson announced he was forming his own victims group, and taking with him five members of the board, including Wolfe, Flynn and Hassimi.

Glenn Johnson, executive vice president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, charges that Hudson took something else: money. The group had raised about $30,000 to run its lobbying campaign, mostly from donations by family members.

"He took the treasury with him," Johnson says, alleging that Hudson kept control of the money for months, until Johnson threatened a formal complaint to the bar association. Hudson says the charge was nonsense. At the time he left, he says, the other group had not opened its own bank account, so there was nowhere to send the money. When the organization had a treasury, he said, he wired the funds.

Hudson named his new, breakaway group "Families of Pan Am 103/Lockerbie."

From the start, both groups claimed to speak for the majority of families.

"Mr. Hudson will tell you he represents the whole world," says Ammerman, "but the most that's ever there {at his meetings} is 25 people."

"I have 170 families," Hudson says.

"We now have 862 auxiliary members," says Ammerman of his own faction. "It grows every week, when I speak." He regularly addresses rotary clubs and other groups, advocating aviation security.

Each group accuses the other of being the lunatic fringe:

"We all have the same goals," Ammerman says. "The only difference is they are more extreme. We have learned to work within the system."

Hudson: "The other group has some very wild people. "

Both groups hired agents in Washington to represent their interests. Their choices of agents are revealing:

Hudson hired attorney Michael R. Lemov, a former chief counsel to the House Commerce subcommittee on investigations, to concentrate on the lobbying.

Ammerman hired the Kamber Group, a public relations firm that specializes in the media.

During the next few months, each group worked independently with the president's commission. For the most part, they avoided each other, lobbing salvos from the sidelines.

Hudson's group adopted a logo for its letterhead: a primitively drawn semicircle picturing an airplane snapped in two, hostage figures bound and gagged, faces upturned in agony, supplicating hands outstretched, fists clenched in anger.

Ammerman's group called it tasteless.

"I can't bear to look at it," says Peter Lowenstein.

The phone lines burned. The unthinkable was voiced.

Why isn't the man who lost his brother staying in touch with the widow and children?

Shouldn't someone who lost a child have a greater say in this than someone who lost a sibling?

So-and-so is power mad.

So-and-so is a liar.

So-and-so is nuts.

Siobhan Mulroy heard it all. It made her sick.

Mulroy, who endured the greatest loss numerically -- six members of her family, including her father and brother -- could take it no more. She quit both groups.

"We have a bad taste in our mouths about the whole thing," she said. "That's why we're not involved. My mother and my brother and I barely have the energy to keep going, day to day."

Another Way to Cope

In breaking free, Mulroy joined a third group of families: the ones who have nothing to do with the politics; they are merely trying to cope with their grief and hang on. One of these is Janet Bernstein of Bethesda, who was mourning the death of her husband when her son, Michael, died on the plane. Michael Bernstein was the assistant deputy director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, in charge of hunting down former Nazis.

Bernstein says she has nothing but admiration for both lobbying groups, regardless of their differences. After a tragedy like this, she says, "you go one of two ways. You become fed up and do something about it, or you become hopeless. Like me."

Mixed Messages

The commission's report, issued in May, was the first official admission that the 270 deaths -- 259 on the plane and 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground -- could have been prevented. The commission faulted Pan Am for egregiously lax security, and the FAA for its failure to enforce its own regulations "for months prior to Flight 103, during the day of the tragedy, and -- notably -- for nine months thereafter."

The commission proposed remedies that were incorporated into the bill, introduced in June. The bill would restructure the nation's airport security network. Under a new assistant secretary of transportation for security and intelligence, and a new assistant administrator for security within the FAA, security managers would be hired at all airports, foreign and domestic. State Department procedures would be improved for dealing with airline disasters involving Americans overseas.

Ammerman's group liked the bill.

Hudson's group hated it.

Had the original lobbying organization still been intact, its members might have resolved their disagreements, worked out a compromise and presented a united front before Congress, exercising the same moral authority that brought them this far. That didn't happen.

Saying the bill didn't go nearly far enough, Hudson and his allies drafted 29 amendments that would, among other things, remove all security functions from what Hudson called "the discredited" FAA. He also proposed creation of a rather dauntingly ambitious Aviation Security Oversight Board, composed of presidential appointees representing airline employees and management, passengers, terrorist victims, the travel industry and the general public.

Anything short of that, Hudson told Congress, is so weak it isn't worth passing.

Ammerman says Hudson's ultimatum is "playing into the administration's hands."

"Vote this down," he said, "and all we've done for 19 months is gone. The momentum for this is now. You've got to seize the moment."

All in all, a bewildering message for a Congress with a lot on its agenda, opposition from the president and not much time before an early election-year recess.

The Dual Legacy

Pan Am Flight 103 ended in two tragedies: a dreadful, unnecessary loss of life, followed by a dreadful, unnecessary falling out among wounded people in need of each other.

What is particularly sad and moving is that there are no villains here, no evildoers getting a deserved comeuppance. No one involved is out to enrich himself; no one is trying to profit, except in the sense of finding peace of mind by creating a lasting monument to people they loved and lost.

The monument is still within reach. Each group is pursuing it, in its own way. Each has begun another round of letter writing, Hudson's group pushing for a heavily amended version of the bill, Ammerman's group accepting it essentially intact. A fitful truce persists.

Members of both groups are lobbying Scotland Yard to persevere in its investigation of the bombing.

Members of both groups are suing Pan Am.

Both groups have set up support networks, meeting about once a month to discuss their bereavement.

Both groups are running out of money.

With so much in common, and so much left to accomplish, is there hope of a reconciliation?

"No," says Ammerman.

"No," says Hudson.

Kate McKenna is a reporter for States News Service.