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Mon Dec 21, 2020, 09:06 AM

32 Years Ago Today; Pan Am Flight 103 disintegrates over Lockerbie, Scotland - 270 dead


The remains of the forward section from Clipper Maid of the Seas on Tundergarth Hill, Lockerbie

Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled Pan Am transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York. On 21 December 1988, N739PA, the aircraft operating the transatlantic leg of the route was destroyed by a bomb, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew in what became known as the Lockerbie bombing. Large sections of the aircraft crashed onto a residential street in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 people on the ground. With a total of 270 people killed, it is the deadliest terror attack in the history of the United Kingdom.

Following a three-year joint investigation by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), arrest warrants were issued for two Libyan nationals in November 1991. In 1999, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi handed over the two men for trial at Camp Zeist, Netherlands, after protracted negotiations and UN sanctions. In 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was jailed for life after being found guilty of 270 counts of murder in connection with the bombing. In August 2009, he was released by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in May 2012 as the only person to be convicted for the attack.

In 2003, Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims, although he maintained that he had never given the order for the attack. Acceptance of responsibility was part of a series of requirements laid out by a UN resolution in order for sanctions against Libya to be lifted. Libya said it had to accept responsibility due to Megrahi's status as a government employee.

During the Libyan Civil War in 2011, former Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdul Jalil claimed that the Libyan leader had personally ordered the bombing, though this was later denied, while investigators have long believed that Megrahi did not act alone, and have been reported as questioning retired Stasi agents about a possible role in the attack.

Some relatives of the dead, including the Lockerbie campaigner Dr Jim Swire, believe the bomb was planted at Heathrow airport and not sent via feeder flights from Malta, as the US and UK claim. A cell belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) had been operating in West Germany in the months before the Pan Am bombing.

Explosion and collision timeline
Contact is lost

N739PA, the Clipper Maid of the Seas, photographed at Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) in 1986. The explosion occurred almost directly under the "P" in "Pan Am" on the other side of the fuselage.

At 18:58, the aircraft established two-way radio contact with Shanwick Oceanic Area Control in Prestwick on 123.95 MHz.

The Clipper Maid of the Seas approached the corner of the Solway Firth at 19:01, and crossed the coast at 19:02 UTC. On scope, the aircraft showed transponder code, or "squawk", 0357 and flight level 310. At this point, the Clipper Maid of the Seas was flying at 31,000 feet (9,400 m) on a heading of 316 degrees magnetic, and at a speed of 313 kn (580 km/h) calibrated airspeed. Subsequent analysis of the radar returns by RSRE concluded that the aircraft was tracking 321° (grid) and travelling at a ground speed of 803 km/h (499 mph; 434 knots).

At 19:02:44, the clearance delivery officer at Shanwick transmitted its oceanic route clearance. The aircraft did not acknowledge this message. The Clipper Maid of the Seas' "squawk" then flickered off. Air Traffic Control tried to make contact with the flight, with no response. At this time a loud sound was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) at 19:02:50. Five radar echoes fanning out appeared, instead of one. Comparison of the cockpit voice recorder to the radar returns showed that, eight seconds after the explosion, the wreckage had a 1-nautical-mile (1.9 km) spread. A British Airways pilot, flying the London–Glasgow shuttle near Carlisle, called Scottish authorities to report that he could see a huge fire on the ground.

Disintegration of aircraft

AAIB model showing fuselage and tail fracture lines and ground locations of parts.
Green—southern wreckage trail;
red—northern wreckage trail;
grey—impact crater;
yellow—Rosebank (Lockerbie);
white—not recovered/identified.

The explosion punched a 50-cm (20-inch) hole on the left side of the fuselage. Investigators from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concluded that no emergency procedures had been started in the cockpit. The cockpit voice recorder, located in the tail section of the aircraft, was found in a field by police searchers within 24 hours. There was no evidence of a distress signal; a 180-millisecond hissing noise could be heard as the explosion destroyed the aircraft's communications centre. Although the explosion was in the aircraft hold, the effect was magnified by the large difference in pressure between the aircraft's interior and exterior, i.e., uncontrolled decompression of the fuselage. The aircraft's elevator and rudder control cables had been disrupted and the fuselage pitched downwards and to the left.

Investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) of the British Department for Transport concluded that the nose of the aircraft was effectively blown off, and was separated from the main section within three seconds of the explosion. The nose cone was briefly held on by a band of metal but facing aft, like the lid of a can. It then sheared off, up and backwards to starboard, striking off the No. 3 engine and landing some distance outside the town, on a hill in Tundergarth.

Fuselage impact
The fuselage continued moving forward and down until it reached 19,000 ft (5,800 m), at which point its dive became nearly vertical. The rear fuselage, parts of the baggage hold and three landing gear units landed at Rosebank Crescent. The fuselage consisting of the main wing box structure landed in Sherwood Crescent, creating a large impact crater where three homes previously stood. The 200,000 lb (91,000 kg) of jet fuel ignited by the impact started fires which destroyed several additional houses. Investigators were able to determine that both wings had landed in the Sherwood Crescent crater, saying "the total absence of debris from the wing primary structure found remote from the crater confirmed the initial impression that the complete wing box structure had been present at the main impact." The British Geological Survey 23 kilometres (14 mi) away at Eskdalemuir registered a seismic event at 19:03:36 measuring 1.6 on the moment magnitude scale, which was attributed to the impact. According to the report, the rest of the wreckage composed of "the complete fuselage forward of approximately station 480 to station 380 and incorporating the flight deck and nose landing gear was found as one piece in a field approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) east of Lockerbie." This field, located opposite Tundergarth Church, is where the wreckage most easily identified with images of the accident in the media fell, having fallen "almost flat on its left side but with a slight nose-down attitude."

All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed, as were 11 residents of Lockerbie on the ground. Of the 270 total fatalities, 190 were American citizens and 43 British citizens. Nineteen other nationalities were represented, with four or fewer passengers per country.

Flight 103 was under the command of Captain James Bruce MacQuarrie (55), an experienced pilot with almost 11,000 flight hours, of which more than 4,000 had been accrued in 747 aircraft. First Officer Ray Wagner (52) had approximately 5,500 flight hours in the 747 and a total of almost 12,000 hours. Flight Engineer Jerry Don Avritt (46) had more than 8,000 hours of flying experience, with nearly 500 hours in the 747. He had come to Pan Am through the 1980 merger with National Airlines. The cockpit crew was based at JFK.

Six of the 13 cabin crew members became naturalised US citizens while working for Pan Am. The cabin crew was based at LHR and lived in the London area or commuted from around Europe. All were originally hired by Pan Am and ranged from 28 years to nine months in seniority.

The captain, first officer, flight engineer, a flight attendant and several First Class passengers were found still strapped to their seats inside the nose section when it crashed in Tundergarth. The inquest heard that a flight attendant was found alive by a farmer's wife, but died before her discoverer could summon help. Some passengers may have remained alive briefly after impact; a pathologist's report concluded that at least two of these passengers might have survived if they had been found soon enough.

Syracuse University students

Thirty-five of the passengers were students from Syracuse University returning home for Christmas following a semester studying in London at Syracuse's London campus.

Notable passengers
Prominent among the passenger victims was the 50-year-old UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, who would have attended the signing ceremony of the New York Accords at the UN headquarters the following day. Also aboard were Volkswagen America CEO James Fuller who was returning from a meeting with Volkswagen executives in West Germany; and musician Paul Jeffreys, the former bass player with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, with his wife on their honeymoon.

US government officials
Matthew Gannon, the Central Intelligence Agency's deputy station chief in Beirut, Lebanon, was sitting in Clipper Class, Pan Am's version of business class, seat 14J.

There was a party of US intelligence specialists on board the flight. Their presence gave rise to speculations and conspiracy theories, in which one or more of them were said to have been targeted.

Lockerbie residents
Eleven Lockerbie residents on Sherwood Crescent were killed when the wing section hit the house at 13 Sherwood Crescent at more than 800 km/h (500 mph) and exploded, creating a crater 47 m (154 ft) long and with a volume of 560 m3 (730 cu yd). The property was completely destroyed and its occupants were killed. Their bodies were never found. Several other houses and their foundations were destroyed, and 21 others were damaged so badly they had to be demolished.

A family of four were killed when their house at 15 Sherwood Crescent exploded. The bodies of the two children were never found.

A mother, father, and daughter were killed by the explosion in their house at 16 Sherwood Crescent. The bodies of the parents were never found. Their son witnessed a fireball engulfing his home from a neighbour's garage, where he had been repairing his sister's bicycle.

The other Lockerbie residents who died a 81-year-old and a 82-year-old Jean Murray, who also both lived in Sherwood Crescent. Both widows, they were the two oldest victims of the disaster.

Father Patrick Keegans, Lockerbie's Roman Catholic priest, was preparing to visit the Henrys at approximately 7 pm that evening with his mother, having recently been appointed a parish priest of the village. Father Keegans' house at 1 Sherwood Crescent was the only one on the street that was neither destroyed by the impact nor gutted by fire. According to a BBC article on the fire published in 2018, Father Keegans had gone upstairs to make sure that he had hidden his mother's Christmas present, and recalls that "Immediately after that, there was an enormous explosion". The same source claims that, following this, "the shaking stopped and to his surprise he was uninjured". Mrs Keegans was also unharmed, having been shielded from debris by a fridge-freezer.

Despite being advised by their governments not to travel to Lockerbie, many of the passengers' relatives, most of them from the US, arrived there within days to identify the dead. Volunteers from Lockerbie set up and staffed canteens, which stayed open 24 hours a day and offered relatives, soldiers, police officers, and social workers free sandwiches, hot meals, coffee, and someone to talk to. The people of the town washed, dried, and ironed every piece of clothing that was found once the police had determined they were of no forensic value, so that as many items as possible could be returned to the relatives. The BBC's Scotland correspondent, Andrew Cassell, reported on the 10th anniversary of the bombing that the townspeople had "opened their homes and hearts" to the relatives, bearing their own losses "stoically and with enormous dignity", and that the bonds forged then continue to this day.

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Arrow 8 replies Author Time Post
Reply 32 Years Ago Today; Pan Am Flight 103 disintegrates over Lockerbie, Scotland - 270 dead (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Dec 21 OP
no_hypocrisy Dec 21 #1
dewsgirl Dec 21 #2
greenjar_01 Dec 21 #3
Happyhippychick Dec 21 #4
Wicked Blue Dec 21 #5
Boomerproud Dec 21 #6
Roland99 Dec 21 #7
Dennis Donovan Dec 21 #8

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 09:13 AM

1. My neighbor (a student) was on 103.

Her parents essentially died of a broken heart.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 09:31 AM

2. I was about 11 when this happened, so very sad.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 09:32 AM

3. Feels like longer ago

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 09:38 AM

4. My son goes to Syracuse University, they house the memorabilia from the passengers in an exhibit

It’s heartbreaking, we visited and read all about the passengers. I was the exact same age as most of the Syracuse university students who died, it’s haunting to see their pictures and realize that they were my peers.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 10:08 AM

5. There is a play called The Women of Lockerbie

that is incredibly moving and worth reading. It tells of the tragedy, and the suffering of the victims' families, and of the possibility of healing. I took part in a reading of it at our UU church some years back.


Goodreads description: "A mother from New Jersey roams the hills of Lockerbie Scotland, looking for her son s remains that were lost in the crash of Pan Am 103. She meets the women of Lockerbie, who are fighting the U.S. government to obtain the clothing of the victims found in the plane s wreckage. The women, determined to convert an act of hatred into an act of love, want to wash the clothes of the dead and return them to the victim s families."

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 10:53 AM

6. The conspiracy theory regarding the CIA operatives on

the plane was some boys in a field found a map of Beirut that had markings where they thought the then American hostages were being held with the date 3-11-89 written on it. Possibly a rescue operation? The conspiracy has something to do with competing operations from Langley vs the White House headed by GHW Bush. The White House was supposedly in cahoots with a Syrian drug dealer that operated out of Frankfurt and kept the CIA people on board in the dark. The NYT had a story about missing maps and suitcases but dropped it.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 11:15 AM

7. Did ya see this today??

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Department charges third Libyan defendant in 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

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Response to Roland99 (Reply #7)

Mon Dec 21, 2020, 04:18 PM

8. It's hard to attribute it to justice, versus Barr wanting to go out on a high note.

That said, justice for this is long overdue.

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