Saturday 18 August 2018

A huge mushroom cloud appeared...

[Today's edition of The Herald features a long article about Sergeant Colin Dorrance who, as an 18-year-old rookie police officer, was one of the first members of the emergency services on the scene when Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie. The following are excerpts:]

At ten to six, as he was driving into Lockerbie his life took a different turn. [RB: His recollection of the time is faulty: the plane fell on Lockerbie at around 7.05 pm.]

“A huge mushroom cloud appeared about half a mile ahead of me," Colin said.

"There was black smoke billowing across the road obscuring the view.”

At first he thought was there may have been been a chemical explosion on the M74.

The blast seemed to be in the direction of the motorway where ironically that week, he and other greenhorns had been training in how to tackle a hazardous chemicals incident.

Or maybe the petrol station had exploded?

It was a while before the dust settled. Confusion reigned as he reached Rosebank Crescent – houses had been struck by parts of the plane’s fuselage, including one which had had its side wall sheared off, exposing the cosy living rooms.

Lockerbie’s fire crew was at Sherwood Crescent, on the other side of the railway line – where whole families had perished and the wing of the plane, had torn a crater in the road.

“We didn’t have the communications we had now," he said. "Some of us had FM-style walkie-talkies, but there weren’t even many of them - they were only issued to people when they went on duty.”

Police and emergency services tried to coordinate a response, still not sure knowing what they were dealing with. A crashed training flight, or a mid-air collision, perhaps?

“At 7.40pm an officer found luggage labels and it became clear it had been a Boeing, bound for JFK airport, from Heathrow,” he added.

Colin cancelled his leave. Colin knew to secure the area, minimising the risk of further casualties. He knew the rules on the handling of evidence. (...)

Later that evening he would be back at his old school of Lockerbie Academy – his knowledge of the building invaluable as it became the nerve centre of emergency responders.

But the horror of that night is brought into sharp focus by one memory. As he stood outside the Town Hall, which had been converted into a makeshift morgue, a farmer pulled up with wreckage from the 747 in his trailer.

It had been strewn across over his land and didn’t know what to do with it.

In the passenger seat was something else he had found. A child, less than five years old.

“I don’t even know now whether it was a boy or a girl," he said. "He or she was unmarked but plainly dead.”

As the farmer disappeared into the night, Sergeant Dorrance cradled the child and walked into the Town Hall. It was the first body to be placed in the 'mortuary'. (...)

One legacy has been better support for those on the ground at such tragedies.

“At the time there was no counselling. There was no structure for it. It was a learning ground for the police,” he said.

The Lockerbie bombing has bookended his career in a remarkable way.

His 30 year term of service up this summer, he has just retired. Meanwhile his son, Andrew, has just returned from New York State, the second of Colin’s children to do so.

On December 21,1988, 35 students from Syracuse University perished in the disaster above Lockerbie. A scholarship scheme, set up in the wake of the terrorist outrage, has led to strong and enduring links between the University and the Scottish border town. (...)

In 1994, Colin was transferred to Lockerbie, where he lived in a police house close to Sherwood Crescent and started a family. The double-glazing of his home was still pockmarked from the explosion, but it wasn’t until his daughter Claire applied for the scholarship programme that his interest in the bombing was reawakened.

“It was important to me that she understood what had been lost,” Colin said, but in fact he had insulated himself from those same questions. “It reawakened an interest in what had taken place, for me.” Claire’s involvement also alerted Syracuse University to him.

“It dawned on them that I was someone who knew an awful lot about the crash and could add to their social history. I’m like the old lady in Titanic,” he said.

The university dispatched researchers to speak to him.

“I found it really fulfilling and quite rewarding to understand what happened on the lives of people in the aftermath,” he says.

And Colin is still involved. This autumn, to commemorate its 30th anniversary of the plane crash, he and representatives of Lockerbie Academy, fire and ambulance services and the RAF search and rescue, will cycle to Syracuse, in time to take part in the University’s remembrance week in November.

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