Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A town laid to waste

[This is the headline over a report published in The Scotsman on this date in 1988. It reads in part:]

The peaceful Borders town of Lockerbie was left with smoking ruins and grieving families last night after a flaming Boeing 747, laden with more than 270 people, scattered death and destruction before crashing alongside the A74.

There were no survivors among the 273 adults and three children on board the Pan American flight front London to New York. An unknown number of people were killed on the ground. in their homes and in their vehicles, in the Dresden-like maelstrom of burning homes and cars.

The jet destroyed or damaged at least a dozen houses and narrowly missed a petrol a station before crashing beside the A74 on the edge of the market town, ten miles cast Of Dumfries, in what was Britain's worst air disaster.

Eye-witnesses spoke of a gigantic explosion and a huge fireball as the jumbo crashed, soon after 7 pm. One described how the stricken plane "rained liquid fire" as it roared earthwards. An RAF spokesman said: "The plane demolished two rows of houses. There are no survivors from these houses. There will be a lot of digging needed tomorrow."

The ill-fated flight, thought to have been full of Americans returning home for Christmas - including some US servicemen - left Heathrow 25 minutes late, at 6:25 pm. It disappeared from radar screens 54 minutes later.

Trouble appears to have struck the 747 somewhere over Langholm approximately 13 miles to the cast where residents found lumps Of aircraft metal and suitcases.

The crippled aircraft struggled west at low level, apparently clipping a hill about three miles east of Lockerbie.

More wreckage fell on houses on the northern edge of the town before the plane finally crashed near Sherwood Crescent.

The end came in a blinding ball of flame that lit up the night sky, as the aircraft just missed a petrol station.

A huge blazing 40-foot deep crater was torn in the ground and earth and rubble covered the A74.

At a 1am Press conference, Chief Constable John Boyd of Dumfries and Galloway Police said that he feared for casualties in Lockerbie.

He said: "Wreckage is spread over a very wide area about ten miles in radius and parts of wreckage have fallen on two residential areas of the town, causing considerable damage and setting fire to a number of houses. There is severe damage to houses at Sherwood Crescent and I am fearful about casualties at that site."

He added: "It would appear that wreckage has fallen at six different locations both within Lockerbie and some miles outside the town. There are bodies at each of these locations."

District nurse Sheila Macdonald was with her two children in a car delivering presents to a friend's house on a hillside overlooking the town when she saw the plane come down.

She said: "There was a horrible droning noise and then this V-shaped object came sweeping down ... it was obviously the wings and the front part of the plane. It was accompanied by showers of what looked like sparks. Another part of the plane came afterwards and it just seemed to plough into the town. There was a sheet of flame and everything shook I knew then it was some terrible catastrophe."

A former police inspector, Mr Archie Smith, lived only yards from the residential crescent which was devastated in the impact and he said: "Four or five houses are just simply gone. The flames spread quickly and suddenly my house was on fire and it just went out of control and has now been destroyed."

He added: "I had more than thirty years in the police force and never saw anything so appalling or with so much horror as this."

Lockerbie resembled a war zone last night with debris strewn all over the streets. The town centre was lined with ambulances and police cars as the search for bodies went on. Seriously injured people were being taken to Dumfries Royal Infirmary while the town hall was being used as a temporary mortuary.

The building was also the centre for anxious people seeking relatives from the area devastated as the 747 crashed. A list of evacuees was pinned on the front wall of the town hall.

The quiet Dumfriesshire town was strewn with debris as the stricken aircraft lurched across the sky to its final impact on Lockerbie's southern outskirts beside the A74.

Phones in the area were knocked out by the explosion. Ambulances came from as far away as Edinburgh, Livingston land Glasgow. Helicopters quartered the sky in a search for any survivors and Territorial Army volunteers plus Royal Air Force staff from Carlisle were also helping to try to wrest some order out of the widespread confusion.

In a grim pointer to the high death toll, a spokesman at Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, Mr Les Callaghan, said it had received only a, 'very, very small number of casualties," nearly two hours after the crash.

A fleet of 12 helicopters from as far away as Hampshire, two RAF mountain rescue teams and a coastguard team from nearby Kirkcudbright joined Scotland's biggest emergency rescue operation.

A special landing zone was organised by officers at Lockerbie police station, which was set up as the disaster headquarters.

Early reports said 12 people had been taken to the hospital - they were thought to be residents of Lockerbie, which has a population of about 3,000.

One eye-witness, Mr Jack Glasgow of Mount Florida, Glasgow, said: "We tried to get near the plane but it was completely on fire. There were no bodies about. I don't think there would be any chance of anyone getting out of it. It went up in a fireball."

Mr Glasgow said the aircraft hit the road, carried on for about three quarters of a mile and then exploded.

A Dunfermline businessman, Mr Edward Killeen, was a few hundred yards away from the scene. He was driving to his home in Gowanbrae Drive Dunfermline, from Bolton and from the scene last night said: "It was quite unbelievable.

"I saw a tremendous burst of flame and explosion. The traffic immediately ground to a halt and even from the distance I could see the sky lit up.

"Very shortly afterwards, the emergency services arrived but found obvious difficulty approaching the scene because of the congestion."

Mr Colin Gourlay, of Hightae, two miles south-west of Lockerbie, said: "We heard a roar, and the roar got louder and everything started to shake. I thought it was maybe a earthquake or a meteor and the atmosphere was burning up. Everything outside was a huge orange glow. My wife was frozen to the ground with fear."

Mr Mike Carnahan, who lives two miles south of Lockerbie, said: "I was driving past the filling station when the aircraft crashed. There was a terrible explosion.

"The sky was actually raining fire. It was just like liquid. We have actually found an aluminium rivet embedded in the metal of my car."

One resident near to the impact scene, Mr Raymond Lees (71), said 'We heard this rumbling, a terrible noise as though it was a vehicle in trouble.

"Then we looked out the window and we could see this debris falling. It just went past the window. There was a massive explosion as though it was fuel that went up. We could see the houses and roofs on fire within yards of us.

"It must have missed this place by a few inches.

"We walked to the A74 and had a look and could see a terrific burning. There were cars and houses on fire. It was complete mayhem."

A school teacher who declined to be named helping control crowds outside the town, hall said of the crash: "There was a sort of rumble. We thought it was an earthquake and ran outside just as the sky lit up."

All roads to Lockerbie were reported blocked with telephone lines down.

Fire services said the A74 the main road between Scotland and the English border had been cut and several cars appeared to have been set alight.

For the first time Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council activated its emergency back-up service to help to provide rescue co-ordination. A spokesman said that there never had been a disaster on such a scale in the area.

A Boeing team will be travelling to Scotland along with representatives of the US National Transportation Safety Board, a Boeing spokesman said in Seattle, Washington, last night.

Mr John Wheeler, Boeing's public relations manager, said: "We will probably he sending a team of two to three experts. They will join the NTSB team."

The Jumbo, a 747-121 class named Clipper Maid Of The Seas, had reached an altitude of 31,000 feet before it ran into trouble, an aviation official said. (...)

Among the dead passengers were at least 36 students from Syracuse University in New York State. They had been studying in London since September, and were returning for Christmas.

A Department of Transport air investigation branch team will be going to the scene of the crash today to carry out an investigation.

The Transport Secretary, Mr Paul Channon, will make a full Commons statement on the tragedy at 11 am today.

[Paul Channon’s statement in the House of Commons and the ensuing debate can be read here.]


  1. And there we are. As early as that. "The plane left Heathrow 25 minutes late, at 6.25 pm." Does everyone in the media think that aircraft normally levitate from the departure gate the instant the doors are closed? 25 minutes between pushing off from the gate and the wheels leaving the tarmac is par for the course.


  2. I have read that about 150,000 people die each day. Certainly some of them under circumstances, that are as terribly sad as these, also a result of willful acts, with the intention to kill, or just with no concern for the life of the people being a part of it.

    But plane crashes are so concentrated, so visible, so coverable, so easy to live yourself into.

    And so such events are invariably hi-jacked. What better occasion to claim it is an act of the insane enemy that for no reason at all does this to us.

    But would Panam 103 have reached its destination if USA and associates had acted responsibly on Iran Air 655? Instead of first the mandatory string of lies and, incredibly, adding insult to injury by rewarding the captain and crew at return?

    It took 8 years of legal battle before 300,000 USD was awarded to the income-earners among the victims, half otherwise. 1/30-1/60 of how we valued our own for Lockerbie and got it. And USA did not have to endure a crippling embargo first. It is good to be the strongest, and with a press that largely support ourselves in the belief that we are the nice guys.

    Our attitude might just have made the difference. Surely, we will always cry more over our own, but what we see is an almost complete disregard for others. It will hit back at times.

    Especially us, in the part of the world where we can change matters without putting our life at stake: we share a part of the responsibility for Lockerbie, and by not seeking justice we are a primary source of inviting the next act.

    This is why the Lockerbie case remains as important as it was 27 years ago.