Lockerbie: A very human tragedy

Lockerbie: A very human tragedy

Press reader Richard Liversedge shares his thoughts on the anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie


Thirty years ago this very night, December 21 1988, Britain suffered its most horrific disaster in post-war history, and the worst terrorist outrage the country has ever known.

Targeted was the Heathrow to New York and Detroit flight, Pan Am 103, named Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Tragically, when the door of that aircraft was sealed at 5.55pm, so was the fate of its 243 passengers and 16 flight crew.

Less than 45 minutes after take-off the Boing 747 would disintegrate after a bomb blew a hole in the fuselage.

Large sections came crashing down on the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 11 of the town’s inhabitants.

What is particularly sad is that, an hour or so earlier, travellers had been enjoying the Christmas atmosphere filling the departure lounge inside Terminal Three.

Fuelling the excitement would have been the 35 American students from Syracuse University in New York, who had been studying in London. Their thoughts focused on returning home where mum and dad, sisters, brothers, girlfriends and boyfriends were only hours away from greeting them. 

One British graduate, 23-year-old Flora Swire, daughter of Jane and Jim Swire GP, had her own reasons to celebrate; she was on the eve of her 24th birthday.

The price of the transatlantic fare had dropped dramatically and she had had jumped at the chance to spend Christmas with her boyfriend, American doctor Hart Lidof.

What she and all the others didn’t know was that the cut-price tickets were a late offer to fill a half-empty plane following an intelligence alert of an imminent attack on a Pan Am transatlantic flight. A warning given to a few, but one that they failed to pass on to passengers. 

Another bargain ticket holder was Yvonne Owen, 29, who was sat holding her 20-month-old daughter Bryony.

Yvonne was flying to New York to meet her American fiance Seth Friedman, to arrange their wedding early in the New Year. Pregnant with her second child, Yvonne, occupied a single seat on row 19.

Jaswant Basuta, a 47-year-old Sikh was returning home to the US. He had attended a family wedding in and was in an upstairs bar with relatives who had come to bid him farewell. 

Jaswant, it seems, was too busy sipping his favourite beer, Carlsberg Special, to notice that ‘Pan Am 103 gate closing’ was flashing on the departure screen. 

Soon he would be racing panic stricken through passport and security, but he was too late, the giant 747 was about to push back from the terminal.

Jaswant was angry with himself and very upset because his wife Surrinder had arranged to meet him at JFK.

(Jaswant was arrested in the early hours as a suspect, having put an unaccompanied suitcase on board. Security police contacted his wife to verify his story. The family had already heard the news on TV and were in terrible distress. 

When Surrinder finally came to the phone weeping bitterly she said: “I know, I know, my husband’s plane crashed.” Then came what they would forever call ‘the miracle.’)

Reflecting poignantly on the moment of departure, the huge bird would have appeared silhouetted against the airport’s sodium lights as it turned towards the runway. At 6.25 captain James McQuarrie lifted the Boeing 747 into the sky for the very last time. 

Neither he, nor Clipper Maid of the Seas would ever see London again.

Paul Jeffreys, 36, founding member of the 1970s rock band Cockney Rebel, was also on board. He and his new wife Rachel, 23, had planned a fairy tale honeymoon in New York City. 

John and Rachel were sat in row 38, H and J, and would die together when the aircraft was ripped apart 

In that final half-hour, Pan Am 103 flew high over towns and cities including Sheffield and Huddersfield.

Thousands of feet in the sky, Noelle, Maria and Elizabeth and the other stewardesses would have begun their night time buffet service.

The aroma of food and coffee would soon be filling the cabin, and with 35 fun-loving students on board you can imagine that wine and beer would be amply flowing. 

Outside, the huge Prat and Whitney engines were powering Clipper Maid, higher and higher in the direction of the Solway Firth and towards the vast North Atlantic. 

Meanwhile at ground level, Prestwich control tower could see that all was well. Then, suddenly, at 7.03, controller Alan Topp watched in disbelief when a single illuminated dot moving across his screen burst into large cluster of green squares. 

Alan would be the first person to witness the Lockerbie outrage. A moment he would later recall with deep emotion.

Six miles below in Lockerbie, Bunty Galloway had just sat down in front of the television to watch This is Your Life where TV host Michael Aspel was about to ambush famous Sooty and Sweep entertainer Harry Corbett. 

Many of Bunty’s neighbours, like Ella Ramsden, were wrapping presents. Ella later recalled how her dog had suddenly started ‘going weird.’

Outside in the cold and wind, social worker Jasmine Bell was out delivering Christmas food parcels. Local hostelries were doing a roaring trade as the festive spirit came upon them. 

Suddenly, for that little Scottish town, things would never be the same again. Huge sections of aircraft’s wings and fuselage fell on the residential area, vapourising houses and turning streets into rivers of fire. 

Hell and Lockerbie had become one and the same.

Only minutes before, Stephen Flannigan, 14, had left his parents and sister at home in Sherwood Crescent, to take his sister’s Christmas present, a new bicycle, to a neighbour’s house. 

His brother David was away at the time. When Stephen was finally able to return to his street, nothing of his former life there existed. 

Across the road neighbours Jack and Rosalind Sumerville, their children Paul and Lindsay and their house were gone forever. This was but a part of the carnage.

You cannot capture unimaginable horror with any amount of words. 

This could never be truer than for Clipper Maid and the town of Lockerbie.

The aftermath was a nightmare scenario and people would be traumatised for decades and beyond. 

Policeman Colin Dorrance was haunted for years by the mystery identity of a baby girl who had been recovered from a field and placed into his arms. It is only in recent times that he discovered that it was in fact ‘Baby Bryony,’ daughter of Yvonne. 

Mother and daughter had been ‘reunited’ and laid to rest in a single coffin in the West Wales village of Pendine, Carmarthenshire. Colin has at last found peace. He became one of the cyclists on the 3,238-mile journey from Lockerbie to Syracuse to mark this 30th anniversary of the bombing.

For the two surviving Flanagan children, it seems that fate would become their destiny. 

David died of a drugs overdose in Thailand aged 24. His brother Stephen ploughed on for many years but it seems that the demons finally retuned. 

In year 2000, at the age of 26, Stephen laid himself down on a railway line; Lockerbie had claimed its final victim.

Jim Swire, the father of Flora, would spend the next 30 years in pursuit of the truth about the Lockerbie atrocity.

Today, at exactly 12pm, in the leafy surroundings of Dryfesdale Cemetery, a gathering will take place at the huge granite memorial which accounts for every name in the Lockerbie disaster.

Behind each name, a person whose life-destiny could only be left to the imagination of their heartbroken relatives; husbands and wives, mums and dads, sisters and brothers.

Later the sun will set and darkness will fall. At 19.04 the people of Lockerbie will remember their townsfolk. 

For those across the Atlantic, and in other corners of the globe a moment of contemplation to honour those who had shared the fate of Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Those who were dearest to them who had gone out into the world one day – and never returned home.

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