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.

1 comment:

  1. We as members of the wonderful PanAm family will never forget the night that changed all of our lives and hundreds of others foever. The years have gone by ,but our friends colleagues and passengers and all their families will hold special memories in our hearts .The wonderful people of Lockerbie will be also forever be remembered for all of their help in the aftermath . One police officer especially ,Colin DorranceMBE who continues to this day to do so much in their memory ,and recently recognised by Her Majesty .No one deserves more praise . Forever in our hearts .May the vivtims rest in peace.