Saturday, 14 December 2013

The whole world was on fire

[In today’s edition of The Herald there is a long and moving article by Russell Leadbetter headlined 'It was like an atomic bomb going off': the Lockerbie air disaster remembered, in which local inhabitants and emergency services personnel give their recollections of the disaster.  The following are excerpts:]

It was 7pm, December 21, 1988 - a placid, uneventful winter's evening. By midnight, the name of the town would be broadcast to a stunned and disbelieving world.

"I'll never forget that noise," said one young man later. "It got louder and louder. I thought it would never stop."

The sound of the Clipper Maid Of The Seas as it plummeted towards Lockerbie was the loudest thing the townspeople had ever heard. They spoke of it as "like an atomic bomb", a "thunderous black mass" raining down from the sky. The whole world was on fire: rooftops, hedges, houses. Objects were ablaze as they fell to earth. One man saw an entire wing of the Boeing 747, minus its engines, falling earthwards.

One woman sprinted for her life as part of the plane crashed beside the garage where she was filling her car with petrol. "I just left the car and ran like hell," she told a radio reporter. "The tarmac was on fire in different places. I ran from the car and there were flames all round the tyres."

Emergency services were already speeding towards the scene. In newsrooms, editors and journalists were about to work on the biggest story of their lives. (...)

Plasterer Kevin Anderson, now 49, was living in Tundergarth, three miles from Lockerbie, at the time of the disaster. "I was in the garage, changing the oil in my wife's car. It was a dark night, dry but windy.

"I was walking towards a bench under a window that looks on to Lockerbie when I heard a big explosion. I thought, Jesus wept. It was like an atomic bomb going off, like you see on television. I thought something had blown up in Lockerbie - petrol pumps or something like that.

"I went outside a couple of minutes afterwards. I was standing there, and I thought I'd go into the house and get my wife. Then I heard the sound of big things hitting the ground, one after another. I'll never forget that.

"Then there was another noise. You know how loudly a young kid can scream? This was 30 times louder. I thought, what the heck is that? All of a sudden - bang, right in the field opposite my house.

"At first I didn't know what it was. I thought at first it was cardboard boxes. It was dark but I could see the outline of something. I went in and got the wife, and just at that moment the power went off. I told her, 'There's something happening in Lockerbie.' You could see a glow in Lockerbie by this stage.

"I told her, 'Something has landed in that field over there.' I jumped into my car and drove to the field, and as soon as I went in the top gate I could see the words 'Pan Am' on the front of the cockpit. There was nothing but bodies all around.

"I went from there to my father-in-law, who lived up the road. He had folk in for a meal. I went in and told him, 'Jimmy, you need to come with me - there's the front of a plane lying in the field and there's bodies everywhere.'

"I had often taken the mickey out of him. He just smiled and said, 'Now Anderson, don't start that …' I said, 'Honest to God, you need to come.' He'd heard nothing. He'd only been a couple of hundred of yards from where the cockpit had landed.

"So he came out and jumped in my car. My wife had been trying to phone the police. It had taken her a while to get through. At first they thought it was two fighter planes that had collided. I think she was the first to tell them that actually it had been a Pan Am airliner.

"We went to the cockpit with a torch and looked in to see if there was anyone alive. I could see the pilot. There were bodies scattered around the ground outside the cockpit but they were just like rag dolls.

"The police arrived quickly, and a doctor. There was no-one alive. The doctor checked a few and went back to Lockerbie. There was nothing he could do here.

"Did it have any impact on me? To be absolutely honest, I don't think it did, though I do think back on it a lot.

"One thing I do remember is that the people who were found near the cockpit all had their clothes on, but those who were found 300 yards away only had their socks on.

"I can't believe it was all of 25 years ago. It's unreal how quickly it has passed.

"We have met a lot of nice people out of it - a lot of [bereaved] relatives have come here, and they still come. My kids still get Christmas presents from folk in America. There's always some good comes out of bad."

Agnes McLean, a farmer's daughter, is a Lockerbie & District community councillor. "I was making mince pies in the kitchen and listening to The Archers on the radio, which had just started. My 13-year-old son was out delivering Christmas cards for the Scouts, my eight-year-old son was watching television and my daughter, who had turned 15 that day, and my husband were both in their bedrooms.

"At first I thought it was a military plane that had crashed. I looked out of the window and I thought I could see something burning. Two seconds later, it hit like an earthquake. I was later told it measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. I was less than 50 metres away.

"You could smell the fuel from the plane. There were three seconds of silence [where all you could hear was] the wind whistling through the windows; honestly, it felt like three hours. Then all hell let loose.

"I went through and the Christmas tree was burning. I got the family out of the house. My husband quickly went back in to switch the gas off. He also wanted to retrieve the deed box, which would have made things so much easier, but the bedroom was well alight.

"The telly imploded. The windows imploded. My doors opened and it was just a picture of fire as it rolled in. There was none of us hurt, however.

"We couldn't go down the road because it was burning. We stood outside our diesel tank and said, 'What are we going to do?'

"My daughter said, 'Don't be stupid, let's get away from this,' and we went down the field to a neighbour's, where my eight-year-old son went into shock. Then we went to my mum's. My older son, who had been delivering the Scout cards, came back up and saw the whole of our house alight, but the kitchen was still standing, so he went in there and picked up a couple of schoolbags.

"He then went down the dual carriageway and helped people get stuff out of their cars. It took us until 10pm to find him.

"Looking back, I say to people, 'Do you remember the fireball that night? Well, I was in the middle of it.' But we never went back to the house - we just felt we couldn't.

"However, I - like a lot of people in Lockerbie - think we want to be left alone now. This is the 25th year, and we would like to be left in peace. We've lost a lot of community spirit in the last 25 years."

The first fire crews at Lockerbie were confronted with a scene of profound devastation. In the hours that followed, 188 personnel attended and 20 fire-brigade pumps were called into action. It was a huge and profoundly complicated task. Among the firefighters that first night was Tom McAdam, deputy divisional commander in E Division, of what was then Strathclyde Fire Brigade. Now 70 and living in Lanarkshire, he retired in 1990.

"I was on duty at Motherwell fire station, the divisional HQ in those days. We got a call from Control - they wanted thermal-image cameras, which we had deployed a few months earlier, to be taken down.

"I took them in my car to Lockerbie. We knew on the way down there, on the A74, that something terrible had happened. In those days, lorry drivers were notorious for drawing out on hills; you'd get two lorries together and you couldn't get by them. That night, we'd be a mile behind the lorries and they'd be indicating they were pulling over to let us by. The drivers knew something big had happened - they were saying, get on down there.

"We thought the cameras would make a big difference but for various reasons they were no use. There were no living casualties, they were all dead. There was no heat-difference to show up on the cameras. However, the Dumfries and Galloway firemaster asked us to stay on and assist.

"By the time I arrived most of the fires had been extinguished. The role we were asked to do was to organise fire crews to search for fatalities and ensure that all affected properties were searched and identified as having been searched.

"It was such a large incident. Very few firefighters in the world will experience that, which makes the job done by the local guys all the more remarkable.

"When we got to the town, we realised how bad it was. Most of the townspeople had gone inside, which is very unusual. If you get a big incident, there's always lots of people, standing around, talking. That night there was nothing.

"The people knew the best thing they could do was to stay indoors. The pubs were empty, the streets were empty. What was amazing was that those who were out on the street just stood, very quiet and respectful. Teenagers sometimes have a bad reputation but that night they were standing holding each other, crying.

"One thing that has stayed with me over the years is that those who lost loved ones, the people of Lockerbie did them proud that night - they were amazing.

"I came home at 8.30 in the morning. I had an appointment with the chief warden at Dungavel Prison. He told me that at the prisoners' behest he had contacted the Scottish Home and Health Department as they wanted to volunteer for the search of the countryside that would be going on that day. That was a gesture that really touched me.

"I still have a soft spot for the people of Lockerbie and for the way they reacted."

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