Lockerbie nestles quietly amidst the gently rolling hills and verdant countryside of Dumfries and Galloway. Yet, on 21 December 1988, it suddenly became the focus of the world’s media spotlight when Pan Am Flight 103 en route from Heathrow to New York violently disintegrated in the skies above the town, the result of a terrorist bomb planted on board before take-off.
A total of 270 people
of twenty different nationalities were killed on the night of the disaster, 259 on the plane and 11 local residents.
At the time of the Lockerbie bombing, I was planning to relocate to this lovely part of south-west Scotland with my husband and daughter, and we were selling our house in Nottingham to fund the move. We had already made several trips to acquaint ourselves with the area, but it was December 1989, a year after the disaster, before we finally headed north. After a few months in temporary accommodation, we rented a house in Lockerbie until January 1994, living and working in this small community for almost four years. During this time, I met a number of local people who had been directly affected by the disaster. Indeed, in the months which followed, almost the entire community was affected to some extent.
Unless you actually witnessed it firsthand, it is almost impossible to imagine what residents of Lockerbie went through. The incessant, ever-increasing and inexplicable noise which could be heard as the plane disintegrated and fell to earth, raining down debris, luggage, dead bodies and dismembered body parts on Lockerbie itself and the surrounding countryside for miles around. The confusion as houses disintegrated, windows blew in, doors jammed, TVs and lights went out and aviation fuel ignited in the darkness.
A huge relief effort was called for, and amazingly, out of a town of around 3,500 residents, 1,400 stepped forward to help in the aftermath. Some manned the canteen, which fed the emergency workers 24 hours a day for many months. Homemade soup, cakes, biscuits and scones were donated by local people. Others with secretarial skills offered their services. Swimming trips and recreational outings were arranged for local children. The ‘washer women of Lockerbie’, as they came to be called, took responsibility for washing, pressing and neatly packaging the clothes of victims who could be identified. These were then returned to their relatives. I personally find this ‘labour of love’ immensely touching, because I think it demonstrates the scope of the kindness shown by the people of Lockerbie. It truly was above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, by the time we arrived in the town a year after the disaster, there was little outward evidence of the devastation it had caused.
Over the years since then, Lockerbie has repeatedly been in the news. One notable occasion was 31 January 2001, when Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan, was convicted of murder after being found guilty of involvement in the bombing. He was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years imprisonment. This may have drawn a line under the matter for the victims to some extent. However, less than 9 years later, Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, controversially made the decision to release Megrahi from Greenock Prison on compassionate grounds because he was suffering from prostrate cancer. On 20 August 2009, Megrahi flew back to Tripoli from Glasgow airport to be reunited with his family, whilst a political storm raged as to the rightness or wrongness of the decision. Sixteen years had passed since I had left Lockerbie, and as I watched the news coverage, I felt a sudden impulse to make a weekend trip back to the town to reconnect with some of the local people. I wondered how they were reacting to this news and yet again being thrust into the media spotlight.
I arrived in Lockerbie on the morning of Friday, 28 August and immediately bought local papers to access the general mood of the community. There were reports of “anger and sadness” at the news of the hero’s welcome which Megrahi received on his return to Libya, and particularly the waving of the saltire, Scotland’s flag, in celebration.
The SNP politician Aileen Orr, a former native of Lockerbie, is reported to have sent an emotive letter to U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, following her criticism of the decision to free Megrahi. She urged Mrs Clinton to show “consideration and respect” to the Scottish people, particularly in view of the great kindness which the locals had always extended to the grieving relatives, the majority of them Americans.
Retired Chief Superintendent Jim Gilchrist, one of the most senior officers in the region’s police force at the time of the bombing, said that the decision to allow Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi to return to Libya “beggars belief”, and stated that “the period of incarceration served was wholly disproportionate to the extreme gravity of his crimes”.
Robert Muellar, director of the FBI, in an open letter to Kenny MacAskill, said, “Your action makes a mockery of the emotions, passions and pathos of all those affected by the Lockerbie tragedy”.
The Rev. Sandy Stoddart, the Church of Scotland minister who led the service to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the disaster in December 2008, expressed the view, “This has gone beyond Lockerbie …. I don’t think we have a clue what is really happening”. He stated that the people of Lockerbie want to move on, and hopes the town will not be pressured to stage another public commemoration on the 25th anniversary.
My next port of call was the Lockerbie library. They hold a number of books about the disaster and also keep on microfiche hundreds of press cuttings relating to the event. I began to wonder whether there was anything I could possibly write or say about Lockerbie which hadn’t already been written or said!
I visited a number of shops on the main street and took the opportunity to broach the subject with the proprietors. Lockerbie people are very friendly and helpful, but will not readily talk about the disaster and subsequent issues unless prompted, and even then, understandably, they remain reticent. There did not seem to be any strong collective feeling about the news of Megrahi’s release, but in general conversation with members of the community that weekend, the following views were expressed:
- We’re glad Megrahi has gone - why should the Scottish people have the continued expense of keeping him?
- Megrahi was almost certainly not acting unilaterally and was possibly a scapegoat.
- Americans should remember the kindness the relatives of the victims have been shown by the people of Lockerbie, rather than threatening to boycott Scottish holidays and goods over the decision to free Megrahi.
- If Megrahi is genuinely dying, is showing compassion such a bad thing?
- Considering the amount of money which was donated in the aftermath of the disaster, it’s a shame there is not more to show for it in the town, something like a new hospital which would benefit the whole community.
Later, whilst having lunch at Café 91, I sat in a window seat and watched the Lockerbie Academy pupils who had flooded into the town to buy a mid-day snack. It struck me that few if any of these were alive when the disaster occurred, which was disconcerting because to me it seemed a relatively recent event!
On Saturday, I made a visit to the Dryfedale Cemetery where a memorial lists the names of all 270 victims. It is a peaceful spot, conducive to contemplation. A wedding party arrived whilst I was there and the bride left her bouquet by the memorial. It seems this is becoming something of a tradition amongst local girls.
Pam Copeland, a steward at the Visitor Centre at Dryfedale Cemetery, didn’t speak of the disaster until I raised the subject, when I learned that she lived in an area of the town where houses suffered considerable structural damage. Even more distressing, around 80 dead bodies fell here, on the streets, in gardens and on roofs, and it took several days to clear them away. Pam recalled that when she was interviewed for the job at the Visitor Centre five years ago, she was asked how she would cope when people asked about the disaster. At the time she thought, “Surely no-one will ask about that after all these years”. She chuckles now at how naïve she was, because of course many visitors inevitably still enquire about it.
I saw Jimmy Pagan at the Dryfedale Cemetery. Jimmy has lived in Lockerbie his entire life, and is a great local character. He prides himself on never forgetting a face, and was most disappointed that he couldn’t remember me. However, he did remember my daughter who worked for a time at a local supermarket. Jimmy told me his mother died in 2006 and his father in 2008, both in their 90s . They are now buried together at the Dryfedale Cemetery and Jimmy puts fresh flowers on their grave every week. He has two brothers, George and Alan, who still live locally.
Jimmy also pointed out to me the headstone which marks the grave of David and Steven Flannagan. These two brothers sadly epitomise ‘the tragedy within a tragedy’. Their mother and father and their 10 year old sister were all killed when their house in Sherwood Crescent was totally obliterated, along with four others, that dreadful night. David, 19, was living in Blackpool at the time, but was planning to visit his family in a few days at Christmas. Steven, 14, had gone to a friend’s. When he returned, nothing remained of his home or his family. He became known as the ‘Orphan of Lockerbie’, and was placed with foster parents in the town.
Both David and Steven received sizeable amounts of compensation. David, the older brother, considered it ‘dirty money’ and used it to finance a reckless life. He died from heart failure in Thailand just 5 years after the disaster. Steven, by then 19, chose the epitaph for his brother’s gravestone: Lived to the Limit.
Devastated by his brother’s death, Steven left the town. He travelled to Florida and, ironically, gained a private flying licence. Later, on a trip back to Lockerbie, he met Lisa Nesfield and became father to a baby boy, Luke. Sadly, the relationship disintegrated and Steven moved to Wiltshire, but kept in regular contact with his son, who still lives in Lockerbie with his mother and step-father. Steven was well liked in the area he moved to and built a close circle of friends. However, he died in mysterious circumstances, being hit by a maintenance train on the tracks of the Westbury-Trowbridge rail line at 3am on 18 August 2000. He died two days later in hospital, on his 26th birthday, and is now buried with his brother David in Dryfedale Cemetery.
On Sunday, the final day of my weekend visit, Ella Ramsden had agreed to meet with me. Ella was 59 years old when she had a miraculous escape from her house in Park Place, which collapsed whilst she was still in it. Moments before this happened, confused and scared by the dreadful noise and eerie lights in the sky, she had gone to the back door, her Jack Russell terrier Cara in her arms, with the intention of getting out, but found the door jammed. Fortunately, neighbours were later able to free her, relatively unscathed, from what remained of her house.
Ella is still very active in the community and plays bowls regularly. I met Ella when I lived in Lockerbie previously, and know she struggled terribly with feelings of guilt that she had survived whilst others had lost their lives. She seems to have come more to terms with this now, but is still reticent to talk about her personal experiences.
Ella lived with her mother for a few months immediately after the disaster, but she threw herself into the relief effort, helping to man the makeshift canteen. At times, if there were no police women available, she was asked to sit with and comfort relatives of the victims who had begun to arrive in the town to see the place where their loved ones had died. She formed a lasting friendship with Geri Buser from New Jersey, who lost her husband, son and pregnant daughter in the tragedy. She would have been on the plane herself, but stayed behind in America to have an important medical procedure.
Very little was salvaged from Ella’s house, and she recalled how friends and neighbours donated clothes for her to wear until she could buy herself a new wardrobe. Her gentle sense of humour shone through as she recalled, “The only item of clothing no-one donated was a bra!” She showed me a small Toby milk jug, which was also retrieved from the rubble, although the matching teapot and sugar bowl were never found. I asked Ella, if she could have just one possession back out of all the ones she lost, which would it be? She replied without hesitation, “My engagement ring”.
We looked at photographs of Ella and her family celebrating her 80th birthday a few months earlier. She has two daughters, a son and six grandchildren. I remark that, if she had not escaped, she would not have lived to see the four younger grandchildren. She agrees, and tells me that, in fact, her son and daughter-in-law and their two children also had a narrow escape, as they had been visiting her and had left only hours before the plane came down.
Clearly Ella is an incredibly positive person. Does she have any regrets? Only that her husband, Harry, did not live to see any of their grandchildren.
I had already encroached on Ella’s time far longer than intended, and made a move to leave. I had a long drive back to Nottingham, and wanted to arrive before dark. Ella invited me to stay for some homemade broccoli and stilton soup and hot buttered toast before I set off, for which I was grateful.
As I drove the 220 miles home, there was plenty of time to reflect on my visit. I felt uplifted, having returned to this place and seen that the intervening years had not changed the kindly nature of the local people. This is a small community, but a strong one. They do not forget the past, but will not let it define their future.
I also contemplated, what if the plane had exploded above a city, such as Nottingham, London, Manchester or Glasgow? Certainly there would have been greater damage sustained to property and more lives lost on the ground, but also, the experience of grieving relatives would have been entirely different. I felt sure they would not have experienced as much kindness and personal interest from people living in a big metropolis. How much better for them to be able to remember their loved ones in this unassuming little town, surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful countryside, where community still stands for something. I began to wonder why I ever left …
Well worth viewing on YouTube: