Monday, December 23, 2019

The Hungerford Massacre

19th August 1987 started out as any normal sunny day at the height of the school holidays in the Berkshire market town of Hungerford, UK. At home in her semi-detached house was primary school dinner lady Dorothy Ryan who lived with her 27-year-old son Michael on South View. Unbeknown to her, the son she adored would soon become one of the most talked about killers in British history.

Just after midday Michael Ryan drove his Vauxhall Astra to Savernake Forest where a woman was having a picnic with her two children. He shot her dead and calmly walked away. The two children managed to escape and raise the alarm when they found a passer by and told her that a man had shot their mummy.

Stopping at a petrol station he opened fire again while he was filling his car up, this time missing and giving the people around him chance to ring the police thinking it was an attempted armed robbery.

Now Ryan drove back to his street and began shooting at whoever he saw, entering houses where he could and murdering the occupants, killing those walking by and even turning the gun on his own mother. After setting his house on fire and shooting at his own car, he then aimed at a police officer in his own vehicle who had been sent to investigate the reports of multiple shootings. PC Roger Brereton died in his patrol car but not before he was able to radio that he had been shot.

By now it was clear that the events unfolding were too big for the local police to deal with and specialist firearms teams were dispatched. The injured were being rushed to hospital and the death toll was rising with every sound of a gunshot.

By the time Michael Ryan was located he had locked himself in a school close to his house where he had attended as a child. Negotiations started taking place to try and allow Ryan to surrender without any more bloodshed.

After several hours of getting nowhere with him the sound of a single gunshot echoed from the classroom where he had barricaded himself in. When the police were content that it was safe they managed to gain entry and confirmed that Ryan had committed suicide.

The investigation into the massacre at Hungerford could find no reason for Ryan’s sudden murderous rampage that ended up leaving 16 dead and 15 others injured. The weapons he used ranged from automatic rifles to a 9mm pistol. The fires at South View were extinguished and the town returned to normal, but not without the name Hungerford forever being tainted with the memory of Britain’s worst mass shooting (at the time).
Today the streets show no evidence of what happened, the houses were rebuilt and the school carried on as normal. A memorial plaque honours the victims in a quiet corner of the town as well as a bench where those who wish to reflect on memories can sit a while out of the way.

But the one question that was never answered was why Michael Ryan felt the need to commit an act of multiple homicides that included his own mother, cementing his name in the list of the UK’s worst mass killers and into the annals of criminal history.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Bombing of Pan Am flight 103

Christmas is usually a festive time where families are brought together and the winter nights mean cosy times in front of a fire away from the outside cold and wind. For the residents of the small Scottish border town of Lockerbie tonight was the night when it would be officially the longest night as the gap between sunrise and sunset would then start to close up again.

It was Wednesday 21st December 1988 and with just four days to go until Christmas the flights home were already making the journeys around the world to deliver their excited human cargo to their waiting families. For Pan American World Airways flight 103 this was no exception. There were 243 passengers and 16 crew on board the Boeing 747 and the journey from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK Airport was going to be the usual long trip where most people would take the opportunity to sleep in the overnight Atlantic crossing.

Named Clipper Maid of the Seas, the jet left the gate at 1800 that evening and headed north on the scheduled flight plan. What nobody realised was that deep in the cargo hold, a bomb had been placed within a cassette player and it was timed to go off when the aircraft was well into it’s journey.

At 1902 that evening the bomb detonated with devastating results. The huge aircraft immediately broke into large pieces that showed up on RADAR as five separate targets. Control had no response on the radio and soon the targets vanished again.

Meanwhile on the ground in Lockerbie, huge pieces of flaming wreckage hit the residential areas with an impact that wiped out entire streets. The wings connected to a piece of fuselage left a massive crater surrounded by burning houses. The cockpit lay on a hill next to a church. A woman found dozens of bodies now littered where her house used to be. An engine embedded itself into a road. Fires raged as the occupants of the houses were left searching for their loved ones amid the chaos. One young boy who had gone to a friends house could only watch in horror as his house and his entire family vanished in the blink of an eye.

By the following morning the fires had been extinguished. The smell of aviation fuel was hanging in the air as police, fire crews, ambulances and the army swarmed the site as well as the press and visiting dignitaries. The death toll was shocking – all 259 on the aircraft plus 11 on the ground.

What was more shocking was the news just days later that it was a bomb that had brought the plane down. After a long and controversial investigation it was Libya that was blamed for the attack with two of it’s countrymen singled out. The two men were handed over for trial in 1999 and one was found guilty in 2001 following a lengthy court case on a neutral ground, in this case the Netherlands. He served just eight years when a court granted his release on compassionate grounds in 2009 due to him being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in Libya three years later.

Today the town of Lockerbie is remembered for all the wrong reasons – Britains worst air disaster and worst terrorist attack – but embraces the remembrance of all that was lost that day. A memorial garden was set up with each name engraved on a large stone monument, a book of remembrance in the chapel where the cockpit fell and several other plaques marking where some of the larger pieces of wreckage fell.

Other memorials honour the victims at Syracuse University where they lost 35 students on the flight and another at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia (right). While there are several others including a huge sculpture around the world, the world will never forget the bombing of this aircraft and the shock it created. Because of this new security rules were enforced at airports and greater vigilance was encouraged within the aviation community.

Despite the passage of time, the memories of those events that night 31 years ago will never fade.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Paris DC-10 Disaster 1974

On 3rd March 1974 a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft owned by Turkish Airlines took off from Orly Airport, Paris, on a journey that originated in Istanbul and was now bound for London Heathrow. On board were 346 people including the 11 crew and there was nothing to suggest that this flight would be any different from the rest. Designated as flight 981, the plane was less than two years old and had so far worked well for her owners.

Some of the more notable people on board were an amateur rugby team from England and Olympic hurdle silver medal winner John Cooper.

What nobody was aware of and could have never imagined was the serious design flaw of the aft cargo door which when in use swings outwards. As the aircraft climbed the pressure increased internally causing enormous strain on the locking pins which had previously been filed down to prevent difficulties for the ground crews.

Just minutes after the aircraft had left the runway the cargo door suffered a catastrophic failure and the resulting pressure release ripped the surrounding area off which included part of the fuselage and several passengers still strapped to their seats.

The airliner was doomed from that moment on. It lost control and nose-dived into the Forest d'Ermenonville outside of the French capital at just under 500 miles per hour.

Rescuers were faced with a horrific task of locating wreckage over a wide area covered in forestry. Body parts were left hanging from the trees and the task of trying to gather together all the wreckage for the forensic investigation was proved extremely hard work. It very soon became apparent that this was not a rescue operation but that of recovery. There were no survivors, making this (at the time) the worlds worst air disaster.

Most of the plane had smashed into small pieces leaving only a few fires which were easily dealt with, but the answer to the cause of the crash came two days later when reports came through that the cargo door and the dead row of passengers in their seats were found in a field. This led investigators straight to the cause, although initial theories had suggested terrorism could have played a part. This was discounted almost straight away.

As the inquiries blamed the cargo door failure, the families of the victims did what they could to remember their loved ones. So many bodies were not identified and many more were just body parts gathered together. The wreckage was removed as best as it could be but the forest would never return to normal after that amount of damage.

Following the cargo door failure, it was redesigned to swing inwards so that any internal pressure would force the door closed instead of force it open. What had started as a space-saving initiative had led to a huge investigation and the deaths of hundreds of people for it to be changed.

The crash has since been the subject of several books and was also featured on the popular TV documentary series Air Crash Investigation.

Today a huge stone memorial stands at the spot where the airliner crashed, it is on a nature trail and visited by people passing through on a daily basis. Looking around you could never dream that something so tragic would have taken place here as the only noise breaking the silence is that of the wind and the nature.

I took a trip to the forest and visited this memorial in August 2019 and found that although 45 years have now passed, pieces of wreckage are still being found and placed at the foot of the memorial. Most of them are unrecognisable but one piece in particular was a broken sign in both English and Turkish from the toilet cubicle. Whoever had found this had placed it separate from the rest as a reminder that these nondescript pieces of metal and wires were once a proud aircraft full of real people. The DC-10 has continued to fly and has proved to be one of the most popular aircraft for carrying both passengers and cargo. But the legacy of the Paris crash will always be the lessons learned from the cargo door failure.

Relatives have left tributes here for the victims of this terrible disaster and with the crash today still being the fifth worst air crash, this will continue to be one of those incidents that will be studied and written about for a very long time.