The ocean was supposed to swallow our grief
to bury the crime.
We have our tears
This page includes details of the bombing of Pan Am 103 and descriptions of the reactions of some affected. Though I’ve avoided graphic descriptions, some of the material may be disturbing.
Pan Am Flight 103 was cruising at an altitude of 31,000 feet when at 7:02:50 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, a pound of Semtex explosive blew a small hole in the fuselage. Hidden in a Toshiba cassette radio packed in an unchecked Samsonite suitcase, the bomb exploded in cargo container AVE 4041PA, which was located on the aircraft’s port side, roughly under the “A” in Pan Am’s logo.
The explosion instantly cut power to the passenger cabin and jostled and disrupted flight controls. As the 747 pitched violently, aerodynamic forces combined with expanding gasses from the explosion, the vast disparity between the air pressure in the cabin and the rarefied atmosphere 6 miles above Scotland, and mach stem shock waves from the detonation to destroy the airframe. The forward part of the hull broke free within 3 seconds of the blast, landing in a field near Tundergarth Church. Wind swept through the interior of the remaining fuselage, eventually stripping away the roof and tail. The remnants of Pan Am 103 prescribed an arc through the Scottish night before finally plunging straight down when the plane reached 19,000 feet. The wings and a portion of the fuselage struck Sherwood Crescent on the outskirts of the village of Lockerbie. The resulting impact and fireball killed 11 residents in that neighborhood. A second large portion of the fuselage located aft of the wing spar broke free in the dive to eventually land in the backyards of an apartment complex on Park Place near Rosebank Crescent, where it severely damaged one of the units on impact.
The passengers on Pan Am 103 were young: the average age was 27. At 82, Jean Aitken Murray was the oldest passenger on the flight, while 2 month old Brittany Leigh Williams was the youngest. Sixty five of the victims were college students; of those, 35 were participating in Syracuse University’s Department of International Programs Abroad. Most of the latter had spent the fall semester in London.
Two hundred and seventy people had become unwitting victims of the silent war with Libya. Muammar al-Gaddafi was no longer a punchline.
Joan Deppa, a professor at Syracuse University’s prestigious Newhouse School of Communication, sees the media coverage of the Flight 103 disaster as groundbreaking in its day. Journalists used modems, cell phones, computer networks, and satellite feeds to disseminate information with unprecedented rapidity for the time. Unfortunately, confusion, inexperience, and outright incompetence often undermined the efficiency of the nascent technologies at work.
Confronted with an unthinkable tragedy, officials scrambled to field requests from anxious family members, while others simply failed to respond altogether. Journalists roamed the corridors of JFK International and the campus at Syracuse University, seeking out stunned and saddened parents, friends, and lovers. A nation unaccustomed to mass terrorism fumbled its way through the bleakest night of the year.
December 21, 1988. Lockerbie, Scotland. 7:15 P.M. GMT
When the bomb exploded, Pan Am 103 was flying northeast on a path that would have taken it over the eastern outskirts of Lockerbie. The airframe began to break apart immediately after the explosion; within seconds, the forward part of the fuselage broke free, exposing the plane’s interior to conditions similar to those atop Mount Everest. Intense winds generated by the 747’s forward momentum peeled away portions of the aircraft’s roof. The jet stream, traveling west at 130 miles per hour, carried luggage, clothing, papers, and fragments of the hull almost due west to form a southern debris trail at a right angle to the plane’s flight track.
Momentum and 3 functioning engines carried the damaged hull roughly 4 kilometers toward Lockerbie. The flight gradually lost altitude until, 19,000 feet over Lockerbie, Pan Am 103 entered a near-vertical dive. The remaining portions of the roof and rear of the fuselage including the vertical stabilizer broke apart, their remnants forming a northern debris trail. Reduced to the wings and around 100 feet of the fuselage, Pan Am 103 plunged toward Lockerbie. Without the stabilizers, the remaining portions of the aircraft pitched, twisted, and slid, generating enormous forces on the floor until, at 9,000 feet, a 60 foot section of the cabin aft of the wings separated from the wing-spar.
Some crew members and first class passengers remained in the forward hull and cockpit, the only easily recognizable portion of the 700,000 pound aircraft, which came to earth near a tiny, idyllic country church. Others sitting in the first class, business class, or economy class seats in front of the wing landed in the fields and sheep pastures of Tundergarth Mains, approximately 5 miles southwest of Lockerbie. A few landed Near Halldykes farm several miles from Tundergarth.
Most of the passengers sitting aft of row 60 fell to earth in Beech Grove and Quhyetwhoolen, many of them landing on the golf course on the western edge of town.
The wings, connected by the spar and a section of the fuselage, traveled the farthest to strike Sherwood Crescent, a community on the southeast edge of Lockerbie. Laden with enough kerosene for a trip across the Atlantic, the wings’ weight and aerodynamic shape ensured that this section of the plane was among the first to strike earth. The impact and fireball vaporized homes and cast burning fuel and debris throughout the area. Within seconds, dozens of homes were damaged or ablaze.
Moments later, the 60 foot section of the fuselage carrying 61 passengers crashed into the back gardens of an apartment complex on Park Place in Rosebank Crescent. The impact damaged several buildings in the area and crushed Ella Ramsden’s flat at 71 Park Place. Ella escaped almost unharmed; tragically, 11 residents from Sherwood Crescent aren’t as fortunate.
The path each passenger took to earth was partially determined by her or his location on the plane, yet the capriciousness of the jumbo jet’s disintegration was such that many passengers, separated by feet on the plane, would land miles apart. Elia Stratis and John Cummock, both in first class, landed with the forward portion of the fuselage, as did James Macquarrie, the pilot who moments ago throttled back the 747’s engines in anticipation of a routine transatlantic flight.
Talented and gregarious Syracuse student Alexander Lowenstein fell to earth on near Tundergath. Sarah Phillips and her London roommate Julianne Kelly landed in a field on Wylieholl farm; Alexia Tsaris, Julianne’s Pi Beta Phi sister, landed nearby, and 36 year-old Thomas Ammerman fell in close proximity to the S.U. students.
Christopher Jones, the fun-loving S.U. junior who foresaw a party flight home, lay face up on the golf course. Newlywed Paula Bouckley, originally seated in row 39, landed in a hedgerow on the edge of a nearby green.
It was a wet evening in Lockerbie, and several days of rain left the ground sodden and spongy. The force of victims landing in the fields around Tundergarth or the lawns of the golf course often left deep, human-shaped impressions in the soil, ghastly reminders of violence that belied the scenery’s pastoral beauty.
Although he was seated next to Alexander Lowenstein in row 20, fellow S.U. student Rick Monetti was among those who landed with the section of the fuselage at Park Place, miles away from Tundergarth. Glenn Bouckley, Paula’s English husband, was in this portion of the stricken aircraft. Michael Buser, his father Warren, and sister Lorraine Halsch, who was pregnant with her second child, occupied seats A-C in row 35. Warren and Lorainne landed with the wreckage. The majority of the 35 Syracuse students, including Karen Hunt, likewise came to earth in this section of the fuselage.
Several minutes after wreckage hit the ground, stunned villagers tried to gather their thoughts and grasp the nature of the tragedy that had befallen their quiet community. The vast mushroom cloud from the exploding wings conjured up fears that something was amiss at the nearby Chapelcross nuclear power station; some suspected a collision between military aircraft. More than a few townspeople wondered if a petrol station exploded in town.
The explosion of the wings, coupled with fires and other falling debris, had cut power to much of the town. The fires on Sherwood Crescent bathed portions of the town in an ominous glow as paramedics, police, and fire crews waded into the chaos.
Townspeople and emergency personnel who observed the sheer number of victims in the yards and streets of Lockerbie quickly surmised that the town was now the final resting place for a passenger jet.
As wrenching as the scenes were, the sheer horror of the tragedy wouldn’t be evident until daylight.