Saturday, 17 March 2012

London's Heathrow, not Malta's Luqa

[What follows is an excerpt from Dr Morag Kerr’s Scottish Review article An overview of the Lockerbie case.  In it she sets out evidence for ingestion of the fatal suitcase at Heathrow and not, as the Crown claimed and the Zeist court accepted, Luqa Airport in Malta:]

Although Maid of the Seas was loaded from empty at Heathrow, a press release issued on 30th December 1988 announced that the bomb had almost certainly not been introduced there, apparently because the location of the explosion had been traced to the baggage container holding the Frankfurt luggage. However, that container already held a number of suitcases before the Frankfurt items were added, and had been unattended in Terminal 3 for some time during the afternoon.

Baggage-handler JohnBedford was interviewed on 3rd January 1989, and told a strange story. He had left the container with a few suitcases already inside while he took a tea break. When he returned (this was still an hour before the feeder flight landed), he noticed two more cases had been added. He described the left-hand one, which was only a few inches from the position of the explosion, as 'a maroony-brown hardshell, the kind Samsonite make'. It was not until several weeks later that forensic analysis identified the bomb suitcase as a Samsonite hardshell in 'antique copper', variously described by investigators as brown, bronze, maroon and even burgundy. It was known that security at Heathrow was very lax, with many airside passes unaccounted-for. However, there is no evidence the police seriously investigated the possibility that the suitcase Bedford saw was the bomb-bag.

Reasons why this suitcase was not the bomb varied during the inquiry.

Originally (at the 1991 fatal accident inquiry) it was assumed absolutely that the case could not have been moved at all, thus as the explosion had occurred a few inches outside its last recorded position, it was innocent. Later (at Camp Zeist) this was reversed, and a suitcase from Frankfurt was placed in the position the Bedford case had originally occupied. One might think this obviously allowed for the possibility, even probability, that the Bedford case, replaced on top of this Frankfurt item, was indeed the bomb. Especially as no innocent suitcase recovered on the ground was ever matched to the one Bedford described. Nevertheless the prosecution insisted that the tenuous trail of the Frankfurt baggage printout was the one to follow, rather than the only brown Samsonite suitcase actually seen by any witness.

It was only after Megrahi had been convicted that another witness came forward to testify that there had been a break-in into that very area of the Heathrow airside, the night before the disaster. This had been reported at the time, but not acted on. Clearly, this could have been the way the suitcase was taken airside, to allow the terrorist to enter the next day, apparently empty-handed. It was not until 2007 that it was realised that one witness whose evidence had been crucial both at the FAI and the civil actions against Pan Am in the USA in the early 1990s had not been called at Camp Zeist. DC Derek Henderson had conducted reconciliations on the baggage carried by passengers on PA103, and concluded that none of them had checked in a brown-ish Samsonite. This was considered crucial in proving that the bomb had not been planted in a passenger's luggage. However, it also proved that the suitcase Bedford saw was not legitimate passenger baggage. Lacking his evidence, the Zeist judges were able to decide that Bedford's case belonged to a passenger, and had simply vanished over Lockerbie.


  1. It is entirely probable that the "Bedford" suitcase ended up on the second level of bags in the container, even if it started off on the base of the container. Some baggage handlers will always try to avoid having a hardshell suitcase on the floor of the container. This is bacause a hardshell tends to slide around on the aluminium base of the container, especially if, like the Samsonite in question, its sides are slightly convex. When laying cases on their sides many handlers prefer to place softsided cases (such as an American Tourister)on the botton of the container as these models offer much more friction and therefore remain in place and allow easier loading of baggs on top. I have personally witnessed hundreds of containers being loaded in this way. As a student in the 1970s I worked for two summer vacations as an Operations Research Assistant at for BAA at Heathrow and one of my jobs was to observe and report on baggage handling systems on Boeing 747 aircraft. While working airside at Heathrow I also on at least two occasions picked up suitcases which seemed to have fallen from loading trucks or off conveyor belts, and placed them where their luggage tag suggested they should go. It was, and remains, very easy for airside staff to move bags around the baggage system and to insert them into the system without any record being made.

  2. Of course the fact that it's easy to pick up suitcases and put them where you like applies to Frankfurt and Heathrow equally. It was only Luqa, alone among the three airports in this drama, which had procedures in place to prevent that sort of thing.

    Indeed, I do think that if tray 8840 was the bomb suitcase (ignoring the Heathrow evidence for the moment), it's far likelier that the terrorist just added it to the batch that was being coded from KM180 (having cunningly filled the case with clothes manufactured and bought in the town that flight had departed from), than that it was invisibly levitated on board at the Malta end.

    That's a very interesting observation about the suitcase placing. However, bear in mind that Sidhu had less than 15 minutes to get the luggage off the 727, loaded into the container, and the closed container over to the 747. Would he have bothered to lift a suitcase out of the base of the container, even if it was a hardshell? What about just pushing it further to the left so it tilted up a bit, and putting a smaller item between it and the other flat case, to wedge it a bit?

    But supposing he did bother to lift out Bedford's hardshell, and put Patricia's case on the base of the container instead. Would he just have tossed the hardshell back on top of the Tourister? Or is it more likely he left it sitting on the tarmac, and another very similar brown Samsonite just happened to come down the conveyor just at that moment, and he put that there instead? And the Bedford case went on sitting there till the container was nearly full, then he remembered it and placed it in some "remote corner"? And then that case disappeared completely, not being found by the fingertip search that retrieved the rest of the luggage in the container, even the pieces that were blown to smithereens?

    Answers on a postcard....

  3. At serious risk of looking like an airport anorak, I would say the following about the transferring of baggage from the FRA/LHR aircraft to the LHR/JFK aircraft. Firstly, the FRA/LHR flight was NOT PA103A - it was PA103, as was the LHR/JFK flight. PA103 was, in IATA terms, a "Direct Flight" which operated FRA-LHR-JFK-DTW(Detroit), which happened to have a change of aircraft at Heathrow. Lots of passengers used to get quite cross when they realised that what they thought was a single through fllight involved a change of aircraft and multiple stops: airlines where allowed to sell the flight as a "Direct Flight" because a Direct Flight is one which keeps the same flight number throughout (i.e. PA103)even if it made multiple stops and involved a change of aircraft. The number PA103A was used for the convenience of flight handling but officially did not exist. As a consequence of being a direct flight, bags were not required to be security checked and X-rayed at Heathrow on arrival from Frankfurt. Had the FRA/LHR leg had a different flight number it would have become an on-line connection (PanAm to PanAm) requiring security checking of all bags. The actual transfer of bags from the Boeing 727 (FRA/LHR)to the container of the Boeing 747 took, as we know, only a few minutes, The handler, I suggest, would have known that he had very little time to do this task and might have done all he could to prepare the container for the incoming baggage and might well have ensured that those bags already in the container were in the best position to facilitate rapid loading of the rest. This could include either shifting the hardshell Samsonite up the incline on the container(as Rolfe suggests)or else pulling it out of the container and replacing it on the bottom layer with a softside case and then replacing the Samsonite on top, or leaving it out until the end (again, as Rolfe suggests). This is speculation entirely, but based observation of many such transfers taking place. Rolfe could well be right, I could well be right or something else altogether might have occurred; the point is, however,that it is total nonsense to suggest that the Bedford case HAD to be on the bottom because it was loaded before the arrival of the bags from Frankfurt. Any bag could end up anywhere in the container.

  4. I was more or less aware of what you say about the flight numbers, but I think it's convenient to use the PA103A designation when discussing this case, for clarity. It is fairly important to know which leg of the flight we're talking about, and the A designation is useful shorthand.

    Ashton refers to a statement from Sidhu were he confirms that the bags were in the configuration Bedford described when he saw the container. I haven't seen the whole statement, but Ashton doesn't make any mention of him saying anything about moving bags. Of course, Sidhu wouldn't have had any way of knowing what would come down the conveyor to him - he would just have to load as fast as he could to keep up with the luggage coming down the conveyor. Sandhu came and helped him, because the transfer time was so tight.

    My own amateur view was that Sidhu would have been unlikely to have unloaded a suitcase already placed in the container in this situation, though he might have pushed it to the side. Of course I could be wrong.

    It's the convoluted explanation favoured by the court that does my head in. It's even a bit more convoluted than the judges realise, because there was another brown Samsonite coming off the conveyor, that they weren't told about. It just wasn't the bomb.

    One of the items of luggage transferred through the computerised system at Frankfurt to PA103 was a misdirected rush-tag brown Samsonite full of Christmas presents trying to get to Seattle (except PA103 wasn't a viable rout to Seattle). That wasn't the bomb, because it was found intact at Lockerbie. And it wasn't the suitcase Bedford saw, because it came in on the Frankfurt flight. As far as I can make out, it was irrelevant.

    So, Sidhu decides he doesn't want the Bedford suitcase on the bottom. So he lifts it right out of the container. He puts Patricia Coyle's case in its place. He leaves the Bedford suitcase sitting on the tarmac. Then the mystery item comes off the conveyor, and he puts that on top of Patricia's case. There are now two brown Samsonite-type cases unplaced. Hubbard's, which has yet to come down the conveyor, and Bedford's, which is at his feet. These are loaded somewhere else. And only Hubbards's case is recovered.

    We know about two brown Samsonite-type cases. The one Bedford saw, and Hubbard's case. Two brown Samsonite-type cases were recovered at Lockerbie. The one blown to smithereens by the bomb, and Hubbard's case. But hey, the one Bedford saw could not have been the one blown to smithereens by the bomb!

    Why not? Apparently because it wasn't inevitable that Sidhu placed it back on top of Patricia's case, therefore he didn't, therefore there had to be another one.

    Am I the only one that thinks there's something terribly wrong with this reasoning?

  5. I realise this is a bit of an afterthought, more than six months later, but Aku, in case you're still watching, I found Sidhu's evidence. He said he didn't move the Heathrow-origin cases. Three separate police statements saying that with increasing emphasis. Then he was called to give evidence at the FAI and said so again. He even specifically said he didn't lift any of these cases out and replace it on a different layer.

    That's why they believed they were able to ignore the Bedford suitcase. It was on the bottom layer and they were sure it wasn't moved, and forensics thought the explosion had been on the second layer.

    Except, once they sifted through all the mix of blast-damaged suitcase fragments brought in by the search teams, they couldn't identify any case that would have been under the bomb suitcase in that situation. None of the six legitimate items of Heathrow interline baggage was blown to bits the way something under the bomb would have been blown to bits. And the rest of the stuff was all Frankfurt-origin.

    It doesn't actually matter whether that suitcase appeared mysteriously or not. It doesn't matter whether Bedford thought it was a brown Samsonite hardshell or not. If Sidhu didn't move it, and he was pretty adamant he didn't, then it must have been the bomb.

    If the forensic results leave absolutely no possibly wiggle-room for the bomb to have been on the bottom layer (actually they do, but just for the purposes of argument), then you have to postulate that Sidhu was lying or mistaken. Which is a bit strange, as his evidence was very clear and there's no reason he would have lied about it. But if the bomb was on the second layer, he was. So, he took the Bedford case out and put the Coyle case in its place. Then what?

    The Bedford case did appear mysteriously while the container was unattended, and nobody would admit to putting it there, and Bedford said it was a brown or maroon Samsonite hardshell. The minute you accept that Sidhu must have moved it, you allow the possibility that he just put it right back on top, on the second layer, exactly in the position forensics preferred for the bomb.

    The minute you accept that Sidhu was mistaken, you can no longer justify not investigating that case. But they were absolutely sure Sidhu wasn't mistaken, so they didn't investigate that case. They ignored it so comprehensively they didn't even notice it wasn't there among the blast-damaged suitcase debris they examined so carefully.

    Sidhu wasn't called to give evidence at Zeist. Go figure.