Boy Who Fell out of the Sky: A True Story

Boy Who Fell out of the Sky: A True Story

4.0 1
by Ken Dornstein

View All Available Formats & Editions

David Dornstein was twenty-five years old, with dreams of becoming a great writer, when he boarded Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988. Thirty-eight minutes after takeoff, a terrorist bomb ripped the plane apart over Lockerbie, Scotland. Almost a decade later, Ken Dornstein set out to solve the riddle of his older brother’s life, using the notebooks and


David Dornstein was twenty-five years old, with dreams of becoming a great writer, when he boarded Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988. Thirty-eight minutes after takeoff, a terrorist bomb ripped the plane apart over Lockerbie, Scotland. Almost a decade later, Ken Dornstein set out to solve the riddle of his older brother’s life, using the notebooks and manuscripts that David left behind. In the process, he also began to create a new life of his own. The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is the unforgettable story of one man’s search for the truth about his brother--and himself.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is a mesmerizing tale of family crisis, mental illness and unfulfilled promise.
— The New York Times
Marian Fontana
Most memoirs chronicling loss deal with its immediate aftermath, the searing pain of raw and unexpected grief, but in Ken Dornstein's haunting new memoir, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, the author tries to understand the loss of his only brother -- killed in the terrorist airplane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. Not just a tribute to the brief and complicated life of David Dornstein, the book is a kind of catharsis for the author, whose own identity was all but destroyed on that day.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
On December 21, 1988, Dornstein's older brother, David, went down with Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Shattered, Dornstein returned to college and tried to move on. But eight years later, he started reading the papers left behind by his brother, who was an unpublished but prolific writer. He decided to travel to Lockerbie, believing "I could still save David's life if I went right away." This memoir cobbles together the author's memories, past news accounts and David's passionate journal entries and letters. It is this comprehensive blending, as well as Frontline series editor Dornstein's clear and eloquent writing about understanding the mystery of who his brother really was-he uncovers that David had been molested as a child-that keeps this from being a sappy, self-indulgent account. Dornstein employs some clever literary devices, such as a list of things to do in Lockerbie, which includes a walk to Tundergarth, one of the wreckage sites, with "hills so lush, soft, and rolling green you will want to drop onto them yourself." Seventeen years after the bombing, Dornstein is married (to his brother's first love, incidentally), a father and at peace with the loss. (Mar. 7) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Yes, Dornstein's book is a memoir. It's about reckoning with the loss of his older brother David, who, at age 25, was on Pan Am Flight 103, bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Yet it avoids all the stereotypes of the genre: no self-pity, no prose that veers either into grandiloquence or single-word sentences, no tidy pronouncements about a messed-up life. Dornstein (PBS series editor, Fronline; Accidentally, On Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America) gives us the tale of his journey to learn more about a brother whom he thought he'd have a full lifetime to encounter. His book shows how, in seeking to make that encounter endure in spite of David's death, he newly encounters himself. In deceptively straightforward prose, he weaves a subtle story, filled with self-deprecating humor and replete with wisdom. His book is loving, honest, and moving precisely because there is never a heavy hand at play. In fact, Dornstein's approach is the perfect counterpoint to the declamatory style of his brother's life. David had been avid, beyond all else, to be a published writer, and Ken quotes liberally from the many notebooks he left behind. David's death denied fulfillment of his ambition, but through Ken's book, the loss is not complete. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/05.]-Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Dornstein's memoir is characterized by a surpassing drive to express truths as he investigates the emotional landscape of loss following the death of his older brother. In December 1988, David, 25, was flying home on Pan Am Flight 103. A terrorist's bomb detonated onboard, killing all 259 passengers and the crew. The author, then a college sophomore, shares how he initially deflected the monstrous pain of his loss through denial, gradually working toward acceptance of the tragedy in all its attendant sorrows, and ultimately requiring nearly 17 years' reflection before he felt ready to compose this story. David is depicted as a vibrant, impassioned, artistic soul, an aspiring writer who left behind voluminous notebooks, correspondence, and intense ruminations permeated with tones of despair over whether he would fail to achieve his literary destiny. The author feels an obligation to assume responsibility for David's body of work, to organize and somehow wrest from it a timeless "essence" of his brother, to validate his truncated life by bringing the unfinished oeuvre to fruition. The healing process for Dornstein, as he alternately approaches and retreats from this self-assigned task, is laid out with dogged thoroughness. His journey in moving beyond an intractable knot of bereavement is depicted with blunt yet graceful sensitivity. Black-and-white photos are included. This is an ambitious read for teens, but rewarding because of its courage and authenticity.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The disturbing story of a passenger on the doomed Pan Am Flight 103, written by the victim's younger brother, an editor for PBS's Frontline. Dornstein was only 19 when his 25-year-old brother David was killed in the terrorist attack over Lockerbie, Scotland. In this grim, often depressing account, the author digs deeply into his erratic brother's past, seeking not only to recreate his brother's final days, but to burrow into his mind and soul. David Dornstein was a would-be writer whose craving for fame and success far outstripped his talent, and his life had been spiraling downward even before his graduation from Brown in 1984. Although he filled notebook after notebook with his meandering, autobiographical prose, David was far better at imagining himself a successful author than in focusing on the task of becoming one. His personal life was equally troubled. Though handsome and likable, he bounced from one squalid apartment, menial job and failed relationship to the next, while his college friends moved on. When David boarded the Pan Am flight, he was on his way home from Israel, fleeing a promising relationship with an attractive woman. There's a strange, almost creepy element to Dornstein's near-obsessive pursuit of his dead brother's ghost: The author initiates a close friendship with David's former Israeli girlfriend, then later befriends-and eventually marries-his brother's college sweetheart. Dornstein's search also uncovers a childhood secret that helps to partially explain his brother's self-destructive behavior. There are powerful, chilling moments in this story: Dornstein's visit to Lockerbie, where he treads the very ground on which his brother's body fell to Earth, and hisfinal goodbye to the rebuilt skeleton of the 747 in a remote hangar in England. Elsewhere, the narrative stalls, as the author gets buried under the rambling, unfocused writings that grew in unfinished piles in his brother's rooms. Eerily, David had often imagined himself dying young in a plane crash-he presumed it his quickest ticket to fame. Given the downward spiral of David's brief life, we're forced to ponder whether the Libyan terrorists eventually charged with the bombing didn't spare him an even sadder end. It's the most disturbing part of this penetrating but uneven story.
From the Publisher
“Hugely satisfying. . . [Dornstein's] journey. . . reveals not just the truth about the Dornstein brothers but about love, loss, and ultimately life's inescapable transience.” —Daniel Akst, The Boston Globe“Creating narrative coherence out of awful accident is, I suppose, a textbook way of dealing with grief. . . . [But] Dornstein's skill as a writer makes the raw material [of his brother’s life] seem tailor-made for the form he has chosen. . . . It's a compelling, sad, thoughtful book.” —Nick Hornby, The Believer“Dornstein has written a book that transcends its subject, becoming a meditation upon not only his brother's life but his own. All of ours.”—Benjamin Alsup, Esquire “Without an ounce of self-pity or melodrama, [Dornstein] writes with razor-sharp clarity and realizes, as we do, how the chapters themselves are a testament to the enormous love between these two brothers.”—Marion Fontana, The Washington Post Book World

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
856 KB

Read an Excerpt


The night my brother died, I slept fine, back in my old bed in my old room in the old house where I grew up. I came downstairs late the next morning. My father and stepmother had left for work, but I was on my first day of Christmas break from college. I had nothing to do, and the entire day to do it. I found the newspaper laid out on the kitchen table. The headline ran in giant letters across the front page-PLANE WITH 259 ABOARD CRASHES, DESTROYS 40 HOMES IN SCOTLAND. I started to read:

lockerbie, Scotland-A Pan Am jumbo jet bound for New York with 259 people, many of them Christmas travelers, crashed last night into this Scottish village, exploding into a huge fireball and setting ablaze dozens of homes and cars. No survivors from the Boeing 747 were found. The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, although speculation centered on either structural failure or sabotage.

There were other stories on the bombing as well: "Fire Fell from the Sky 'Like Liquid.' " "All On Jet, 11 in Town Are Killed." There were also pictures-a Scottish police officer peering into the plane's crushed cockpit lying in a field; houses and cars on fire; a woman collapsed on the floor of JFK airport (she'd just been told that her daughter was on the plane). I skimmed the stories. I also checked the sports page and the police blotter in the suburban "Neighbors" section. A pizza delivery man had been robbed of $120 at knifepoint not too far from where I lived. News is just news to those not immediately affected, and my brother, David, was not supposed to fly until later in the week.

I finished breakfast and puttered around. At around noon, I turned on the television. Again, the bombing. Now there was news footage from Scotland. I remember the blue lights of the ambulances streaking into town and the hospital doctors looking useless waiting for injured passengers who would never arrive. There would be no injured, the anchorman said, "only dead." I remember the houses on fire and that cockpit in the field still looking sort of like a cockpit. It was Thursday, December 22, 1988. David had been dead on the ground in Scotland since Wednesday night, but I didn't know it.

I have come to think of the impact of my brother's death in dramatic terms: a curtain dropping on my youth, a terrible storm that left me shipwrecked, the start of a new life. But this language came much later. Events unfolded in a much more everyday way: The phone rang and my father, home early from work, answered it. A sales agent from the airline said she might have some unfortunate news about a David Dornstein. Is this the family of David Dornstein? The agent said she needed to check the final passenger list. She said she needed to cross-reference one thing with another. She said she needed to speak with her supervisor. She said she needed to get people in London or Scotland or New York or somewhere to "sign off." She said things were still a little confused. So could you please bear with us? Could you please hold?

My father waited on hold by himself initially, and then he called upstairs to me. I found him at his desk. "Pan Am is on the phone," he said. David boarded the plane at Heathrow, the woman from the airline had told him, but for some reason she wasn't ready to say that David had been on the plane when it exploded. My father held the phone away from his ear and let his head slump. I could hear the airline's hold music through an amplifier my father had put on the phone because of a bad ear: Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose" . . . a Muzak version of "When I'm Sixty-Four" . . . that trumpet song by Chuck Mangione-Do do doooooo, do do-do do-dooooo, da da da da-daaaaaaaaa. The phone call from Pan Am was strange, and the news likely tragic, but the experience of being on hold was familiar. It was as if we had called the airline to book a flight, a winter getaway. Except we hadn't. The airline had called us, and this, we knew, could not be good.

When the woman from Pan Am came back on the phone, my father mainly listened. If he said anything it was on the order of "Hmm hmmm" or "Yes, I understand." Maybe he said nothing. Then he set down the receiver. The message had been delivered.

Neither of us spoke. If we said nothing, if we shut off the lights, if we stood perfectly still, would the news go away? No. My father and I both had heard the final ax blow land, even if the tree had not yet tipped and fallen. We took a last quick look at the world as we had known it, and as the world still seemed to be-but for the fact of that phone call-and then it all came crashing down.

What happened next for my father is not for me to tell. He may not even recall the details; we've never spoken about it. But I remember my own reaction, and it still troubles me. I didn't cry or put my head in my hands or collapse like the lady from the picture at JFK. I was still. I understood the loss as my father's, for the most part, and I thought about how to console him. I looked down from above as the scene in the bedroom played out: those two pitiable souls, my father and I, rats in a maze of grief they had just begun to feel their way around. I felt sorry for them, but sorry like I might feel for the survivors of an earthquake somewhere (there was one in Armenia that same month); sorry like I'd initially felt for the victims of Flight 103 when I read about them in the paper that morning-which is to say, not that sorry at all. It was intolerable for me to have a personal connection to this story, so I simply decided not to.

My father began making calls-one to a friend to cancel dinner plans, another to my sister, who said she'd be right over. My stepmother walked in from work a few minutes later and collapsed in the doorway after hearing the news. My father helped her to a chair. I didn't know what to do. I walked back upstairs. The book I'd been reading was still propped open at the place where I'd left off. A glazed chocolate doughnut sat on a white napkin, half eaten. I am embarrassed to say that I finished it. I was hungry. Now what?

David's old room was next door. I peeked inside. The room was just as he had left it, but now, I knew, it had become a room in a museum. I lay down on David's bed, thinking maybe I could channel his spirit through his sheets and blankets. The house was quiet for a while.

Time had been suspended, a giant parenthesis had opened up in my life, and I could have stayed there a long time. But then the doorbell rang and the parenthesis closed. Men and women in their hats and coats were arriving at a house of mourning. Well-wishers. They walked through the front door on the verge of tears. They talked in small groups, with hushed voices. Someone asked me where we kept our drinking glasses, almost apologetic for wanting something to drink at a time like this. I pointed someone else to the bathroom. A dozen or so people were in the house within an hour.

Soon the Eyewitness News team would be in the living room. David's picture, yearbook-pose false, would be beamed throughout the tri-state area, the local angle to the international news story. Mothers mixing noodle casseroles would glimpse my brother's face and think, How handsome (my father would later mistake a picture of JFK, Jr., for David). And then: How awful.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of the wrongness of what was happening, or if not by the wrongness, then by the sheer pace of events. I felt that David would have been disappointed at how quickly we had accepted the news of his death, and how readily we had set in motion the machinery of memorialization. One minute he was alive in our minds, headed home from a long time away; the next minute the phone rang and we were burying him.

I refused to be enlisted into this gathering army of the bereaved. I slipped out the door and into the backyard. I dropped to my knees on the frozen ground, thinking I should pray, but I didn't know any prayers. Then I lay down, looking up. It was cold, but I couldn't be bothered with so small a matter as my own warmth. I had ventured out into the winter night to make some kind of celestial connection with my dead brother and I assumed I would be insulated from such worldly concerns by the sheer drama of the situation.

I don't know how long I was outside. At one point a jet flew overhead, and I watched the blinking lights on the wings and tail move across the sky. I thought of the snug world inside the cabin, the ice clinking in the first-class glasses, the reading lights being dimmed, the endless rearrangements of blankets and pillows at the start of a night flight. And then I wondered what it would look like if the plane suddenly split in two and all of the people inside spilled out. Which is to say: I tried that night, but it would be years before I could even begin to imagine David's fall.


I have started this story a hundred times in the years since David died, but never finished. Let me begin again.

Once upon a time, I had a brother. He was older, bigger, wiser, more daring, more passionate, better spoken, and much better looking. He traveled farther away from home than I ever imagined I would. I admired him. I was nineteen when he died, a sophomore in college. Now I am in my midthirties. I have some memories of my brother, but not as many as I'd like to think. And each time I check, I seem to have one fewer. If at first I found it hard to believe that David was dead, now I find it hard to believe that he ever lived. David's life has come to seem like a story I made up, a fairy tale, no more real than words on a page. I sometimes find it dispiriting to think that this is what a life comes to, that this is how it ends. But I can imagine David smiling about it. Words were his life. And now the words he left behind would be more vital than ever.

David was a writer. In the years before he died, he was working on something big and, at least to me, mysterious. He wrote night and day, filling dozens of spiral notebooks with his fevered thoughts and phantasmagorical dreams. For a time, he told people he was trying to write down every thought that had ever occurred to him. When he slept it was on the floor, surrounded by books and papers. He renounced beds. Later, he swore off banks, keeping his money thoroughly liquid-a wad of cash tucked inside the pages of a book called The Irrational Man. This was David: He played out every idea to the end.

One day David left home. He left the country. He said he had to go, but beyond his initial destination he didn't know where, and he didn't know when he would be back. He was twenty-five. He pledged not to return until he had written something substantial or until he had otherwise settled the question of his future as a writer. Before he left, David copied into his notebook a passage from the novelist Thomas Wolfe about the extraordinary troubles Wolfe had with an early novel:

I had been sustained by that delightful illusion of success which we all have when we dream about the books we are going to write instead of actually doing them. Now I was face to face with it, and suddenly I realized that I had committed my life and my integrity so irrevocably to this struggle that I must conquer now or be destroyed.

We know this story: A boy heads off into the wild to kill a bear, and he returns to the village a man. But in this case, the boy did not come back. A newspaper feature called this "A Tragic Twist on a Young Writer's Life." According to the article, David carried a manuscript with him onto Pan Am Flight 103, the draft of a brilliant first novel finally on its way to expectant American publishers. But the novel was presumed lost in the wreckage, loose pages of it spread across Scotland along with seat cushions and insulation and other bits of the disintegrating 747. Coming-of-age stories usually end with some obstacles being overcome and the way ahead finally clear. But this one seemed to have ended, at least in part-at least for David-at the bottom of the North Sea with the rest of the lightest debris from Flight 103.

Was the "Tragic Twist" story true? I didn't know. I remember meeting David's best friend, Billy, a month or so after the bombing and talking to him about what we should do with David's writings. Even if there were no novel to publish, I argued that we could put together an edited collection of some kind. David had filled a giant cardboard box with his notebooks and manuscripts. He labeled it in thick Magic Marker: the dave archives. I told Billy that there must be material in there for several books. I remember thinking we needed to strike fast, while the world still cared about the people on Flight 103, but Billy and I never formed anything like a plan.

David's papers sat unread for a long time. At one point, I decided to catalog them. I ordered the notebooks chronologically and straightened them on a shelf. I sorted loose typescripts into color-coded files. I was careful to read only enough of each thing to fix a label to it: fiction, poetry, plays, letters, etc. I told myself it was too sad to read these pages, too difficult, too soon, too much, but my reasons were much simpler. I feared what David himself had feared: that what was inside those notebooks, what was typewritten on all of those loose sheets, was not good enough to justify all of the big noises he'd made about it. I feared that the grand plan had never been realized and that David had hidden this fact from himself in a mass of paper. I feared page after page of throat-clearing about a book that David would forever be on the verge of writing. Wasn't the "Tragic Twist" story a much better way to leave things?

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Ken Dornstein has been published in The New Yorker and has received two Yaddo artist residencies. He is the series editor at PBS's Frontline and lives near Boston with his wife and two children.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Boy Who Fell out of the Sky: A True Story 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago