HADDONFIELD, N.J. — Some stared at their televisions in disbelief. Others were too furious to process the news.
More than two decades after a terrorist bomb blew a Pan Am jetliner out of the sky, victims' relatives watched in anger as the only man ever convicted in the attack boarded another flight to his freedom in Libya, then arrived home to a hero's welcome.
"This is not fair to the families," said Stan Maslowski, whose 30-year-old daughter Diane was returning from London for Christmas when Flight 103 went down on Dec. 21, 1988. "This shows a terrorist can get away with murder."
Maslowski and his wife, Norma, turned on the TV at their Haddonfield home to watch the developments. "You get that lump in your throat and you feel like you're going to throw up," Norma Maslowski said.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released Thursday after serving eight years of a minimum 27-year sentence in Scottish prison. Scottish officials said the former Libyan intelligence officer has advanced prostate cancer and was given only months to live. They said they were bound by Scottish values to release him.
"He got on the plane looking fairly ill, and he got off the plane looking like he could do a dance," said Joanne Hartunian of Delmar, N.Y., who lost her daughter Lynne, a student at the State University of New York at Oswego. "It just made me physically ill."
"It brought it all back to Day One," Hartunian said. "I thought we had gotten past that horrible, horrible pain that we felt, but I felt the same pain today."
Many struggled to explain their feelings.
"It's appalling, disgusting and so sickening I can hardly find words to describe it," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., whose 20-year-old daughter Theodora died in the attack. "Lockerbie looks like it never happened now – there isn't anybody in prison for it."
The bombing turned the families of some of the 270 victims into activists who became deeply versed in terrorism policy, international relations, airline security and victim compensation.
The families, which organized as Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, have evolved from communicating through phone trees to keeping in touch through Facebook.
From the beginning, many were bitter that neither the United States nor other nations spoke out more strongly about the attack, although the White House on Thursday said Scotland should not have released him.
President Barack Obama called the release a mistake and urged the Libyan government to place al-Megrahi under house arrest.
Cohen and other relatives said they believe al-Megrahi was released to appease Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi because access to his nation's oil is so important.
Thursday's release is likely the end of the legal saga.
"Twenty years later, this is the last sad chapter where government leaders have no moral backbone," said Bert Ammerman of River Vale, whose brother Tom was killed on the flight.
Still, the victims group intends to go on. They planned a conference call Friday to discuss what to do next, and expect to join protests next month when Gadhafi is scheduled to visit New York, said Bob Monetti, whose brother was on the flight.
Monetti said he was disappointed but not surprised by the welcome al-Megrahi received in Libya. He hopes as many people will come out to protest Gadhafi in New York as came out to celebrate al-Megrahi's return home.
Peter Sullivan, a college roommate of victim Mike Doyle, said the criminal case does not have to end.
"I would like to see the United States expeditiously indict al-Megrahi and seek his extradition for trial in the U.S. for the murder of 189 innocent Americans," said Sullivan, of Akron, Ohio.
But not all the relatives thought the release was wrong.
"This is just one little thing that says this is not going to hurt any of us for him to be released and go die with his family," said Caroline Stevens of Little Rock, Ark., whose son Sandy Phillips died in the bombing. "We've got to look at one another in a more compassionate way and not rely on war and revenge and all that."
Ann Rogers said she had not been aware that al-Megrahi was close to getting his freedom. Her 21-year-old daughter died in the bombing.
"We haven't thought about him in a long time," said Rogers, of Olney, Md. "Whatever happens to him, the bottom line is Luann's still gone."
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York; John Raby in Charleston, W.Va.; Jessica M. Pasko and Mary Esch in Albany, N.Y; Jim Hannah in Dayton, Ohio; Shawn Marsh and Beth DeFalco in Trenton, N.J.; Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md.; Sarah Karush in Washington; Blake Nicholson in Bismark, N.D.; Dan Nephin in Pittsburgh; Aaron Morrison in Baltimore; Matt Sedensky in Miami; and Chuck Bartels in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this article.