Lockerbie - 25 years on ... a local orphan’s tale and the reporter who witnessed history in the making

Lockerbie policemen search around the wreckage of the jumbo jet's smashed cockpit, hunting for clues to the crash
Lockerbie policemen search around the wreckage of the jumbo jet's smashed cockpit, hunting for clues to the crash
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Jacqui Morley looks back on the devastating effects of the Pam Am 103 disaster 25 years on

It was an age pre-mobile phones, the immediacy of social networking and online news.

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's photograph of the cockpit a few yards from the country graveyard overlooking the little town of Lockerbie. Covered by blankets some of the victims remain on the ground near the wreckage. In contrast to much of the rest of the aircraft this section was relatively intact.

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's photograph of the cockpit a few yards from the country graveyard overlooking the little town of Lockerbie. Covered by blankets some of the victims remain on the ground near the wreckage. In contrast to much of the rest of the aircraft this section was relatively intact.

So the graphic accounts of the disaster carried in The Gazette the day after the Pan Am jumbo jet crashed came from a race against time - captured by two local newsmen who raced to the spot.

David Pearce, a hard news reporter at heart, covered the business beat back then. But when the news broke he knew most of the paper’s editorial staff were at a colleague’s leaving do - including the night calls man.

David, now semi retired, recalls: “It was a very big story, and near enough for all the regional papers to want to go to the job. I couldn’t drive because I’d had a drink so I rang our chief photographer - and photographer Pete Emmett turned up in his beautiful Toyota MR2 sports saloon.

“It was a beautiful night and we got there in the early hours, about 2am, and found this little town, bypassed by the main road, a typical small Scottish town. We saw a huge crane, brought in by the TV people, because this was before electronic satellite transmissions for photographers and before mobile phones, so they had dishes hanging from the crane to transmit back. In the pub someone had rigged up a picture wiring machine and national photographers were paying a lot of money to wire pictures to the nationals.”

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's picture of the cockpit of the crashed jumbo jet just yards away from the graveyard

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's picture of the cockpit of the crashed jumbo jet just yards away from the graveyard

The pair were taken on an escorted visit, by police, to the spot where the fatalities had occurred. “It looked like a war zone. Part of the plane and one of the engines had landed on an area of bungalows and exploded. You could taste let alone smell the aviation fuel. People standing outside houses nearby were still in shock.

“Journalists had seen body parts that had fallen from the sky and landed in gardens, on roofs and in the streets. What we saw was dollars bills fluttering everywhere for a large quantity of cash had been on the plane and people had picked it up. We carried on talking through the night.

“When dawn broke we saw there were just two phone boxes, I stood in a queue of journalists to phone over my stuff.

“Photographers were summoned to a photo call, no reporters, police said we can’t tell you what it is but you will want to do it - and that’s how Peter got the amazing pictures of the cockpit and nose cone, which had landed virtually intact in a field. The cabin crew were still inside sitting in the seats.

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's picture of the aftermath of the crash .. which ripped through homes and shops,  killed 11 on the ground, and left a crater site at the heart of Lockerbie.

Lockerbie - Peter Emmett's picture of the aftermath of the crash .. which ripped through homes and shops, killed 11 on the ground, and left a crater site at the heart of Lockerbie.

“Truckloads of soldiers arrived, to search the fields to recover body parts. We also saw two big limos, full of men in black, sunglasses, fedora hats. The Americans had arrived.

“Mindful of our deadlines we drove home, car windows open, radio on, talking just to keep awake as we had been on adrenalin all night.

“The realisation of what we had witnessed sank in later. People think journalists are ghoulish but you are there to record what’s happened.

“The editor shook my hand. But when you have pride in what you produce it belongs to you, not your employer.

“It was such a big story. We had to be there.”

Photographer Pete Emmett recalls: “There were four to five bodies covered up in tarpaulins when we saw the cockpit. It was not a pretty sight. The world’s press were encircling it from afar waiting for daylight as the flashes wouldn’t do it justice. I came across arms separated that had landed in a greenhouse. You go on automatic pilot, the job takes over, then it was foot down back to Blackpool ... and then I went out and had a stiff drink to forget what I’d seen. It was traumatic.”

The first edition of The Gazette on December 22 carried an extraordinary piece of journalism which began: “Ghostly moonbeams were the only light that filtered into the little lane off Lockerbie’s main street. It silhouetted twisted chunks of aircraft wreckage lying in gardens like bizarre sculptures. The stench of kerosene fuel hung heavy in the air and the ground was thickly strewn with fragments large and small.

“Some houses in the lane were undamaged but beyond them, alongside the main A74 road, others were just smoking shells. Daylight revealed a scene of hideous destruction - a huge crater, burned out vehicles and a carpet of wreckage.”

*****

Brothers David and Steven Flannigan became known as the Orphans of Lockerbie.

They rest side by side in Dryfesdale cemetery in Lockerbie reunited in death by the tragedy which healed a family rift - but never coming to terms with the loss of their parents and sister in the Pan Am 103 air disaster.

It’s 25 years since Maid of the Seas exploded above the sleepy Scottish market town - blasted to oblivion by a terrorist’s, or terrorists’, bomb.

It created a crater where once shops and homes had stood.

Debris ripped through people and places.

The Pan Am jumbo jet had disappeared from radar contact at 7.15pm and hit the ground at 7.22pm on December 21, 1988. Most would have been at home then, with their families, eating, watching telly, wrapping presents, Christmas just four days away.

It remains the worst act of terrorism on UK soil, 270 dead, 259 in the air, 11 on the ground.

More than 400 parents lost a child, 46 parents lost their only child, seven children lost both parents, 65 women lost a husband, 11 men lost a wife and more than 140 children lost one of their parents.

David, 20, had fallen out with his parents Tom and Kathleen three years earlier, had settled in Blackpool but said he planned a Christmas reunion.

It was never to be. His parents were never found but his 10 year old sister Joanne was the first of the victims to be buried 15 days later.

His brother Steven, 14, had survived simply because he went to a friend’s home to repair a puncture to his sister’s bicycle.

The brothers stood side by side with David’s girlfriend Nicky at their sister’s graveside two miles from the town.

The disaster drove David from Lockerbie for all time.

He told The Gazette: “Never in any nightmare did I think I would return for my family’s funeral. I just want to get away from this place for good. I will always live to regret that I didn’t see my mum, dad and sister before they died.”

Days later Blackpool magistrates issued a warrant for his arrest - after he missed a court appearance to face theft and deception charges. His defence solicitor told the court David had been “virtually inconsolable” and under sedation since the tragedy and that strong sleeping tablets had made him oversleep.

Magistrates cancelled the warrant after hearing the tragic story - but reissued it when he failed to show up a second time.

David gave himself up to police and spent a night in the cells, and was ordered to pay £5 a week towards outstanding £500 fines to the court.

Two weeks after David buried his sister, his best friend, a father of two, was found dead in Stanley Park, a note and empty bottle nearby. He had helped David through the fallout of the family rift.

In January 1989 David told The Gazette: “It’s all beginning to hit home now. First mum, dad and Joanne. Now my pal.”

Blighted by the disaster, David and his brother Steven would die in tragic circumstances themselves.

In 1993 David died from a heart attack in a Thai hotel room, after a drink and drugs binge funded by the Pan Am compensation.

Steven fared little better. Neighbours had offered him a new home and new life after the disaster. But he became an habitual heavy drinker.

When David died Steven inherited his brother’s wealth along with his own £2m compensation. He died in 2000, at 26, after being hit by a train.

He was said to have fallen asleep beside the track, arms folded on chest, head resting on rails, having consumed 14 pints of lager.

The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death saying Steven’s final resting place was “entirely consistent with his history of doing so when drunk.”

Steven’s son Luke remains the sole heir to his father and uncle’s fortune when he turns 21 in five years.

Inevitably there were media claims of a curse upon the family.

Nine days after the jumbo jet ploughed into Lockerbie Blackpool Rotary Club president Bill Dickinson travelled north to present a cheque for more than £1100 to the relief effort.

Resort rotarians raised the cash after a plea from Lockerbie rotarian David Rothwell.

The club also offered Lockerbie free use of a holiday caravan on the Newton Hall Holiday Centre in Staining. In May 1989 the first family took up the offer of a week’s break there. They had narrowly avoided death after one of the engines from the airliner landed just 50 yards from their home.

Blackpool Council, urged to donate £100 to each of the stricken Scottish councils, was castigated for mean spiritedness by Liberal Democrat leader Edmund Wynne who suggested a whip round. Lancashire County Council also said there was no provision to make such donations unless the authority had links with the area.

But local folk took part in search parties for bodies and wreckage at Lockerbie. Members of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment which recruited locally combed fells and forests. Resort radio hams from the Radio Amateurs Emergency Network answered a call for assistance from coordinators of the search on the Scottish borders.

Using sophisticated radio equipment, 14 members from the Fylde joined the sweep a week after the Pan Am 747 crashed. Their radio sets had a much longer range than those used by frontline emergency services whose sets were unsuited to the hilly areas.

A Thornton radio enthusiast said poignant finds including a vanity bag, intact and apparently unscathed by the mid-air explosion, and a plane window. “We must have covered 15 miles by road and in every field there are bits of metal.”

All of it was tagged to help investigators piece together the final moments of the jumbo’s flight.

In September 1990 the Air Accidents Investigation Branch confirmed that an improvised bomb in the forward cargo hold had destroyed the Heathrow to New York air liner within seconds. The following month established the link with Libya. It is believed the bomb detonated early rather than over the Atlantic.

The former head of the FBI Robert Mueller believes more people will be charged over the Lockerbie bombing, claiming that progress has been made since the fall of Gaddafi in the Libyan revolution in 2011.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is the only person to have been convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

Libya now has two prosecutors working on the investigation alongside Scottish and US investigators trying to establish if other individuals in Libya could be brought to justice.

Megrahi, released from jail by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer, died last year protesting his innocence.

A series of commemorative events have been held in Lockerbie, London and Washington, America, tomorrow and over the weekend.

*jacqui,morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk

@jacquimorley