On a cold evening just before Christmas on 21 December 1988, 243 passengers and 16 crew members boarded Pan Am Flight 103 at London’s Heathrow Airport bound for New York City.
Less than 40 minutes into the flight, the plane exploded at 30,000 feet, above the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board. The plane’s debris, which rained down over some 845 square miles, killed 11 people on the ground.
Known as the Lockerbie bombing, the horrific events of that day mark the deadliest terrorist attack to have ever taken place in the United Kingdom.
But how did the harrowing events unfold, and who was responsible?
The flight was a frequent one
Pan American World Airways (‘Pan Am’) flight number 103 was a regularly scheduled transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York City. A plane called Clipper Maid of the Seas was scheduled for the transatlantic leg of the journey.
The plane, with passengers and luggage on board, took off from London Heathrow at 6:25 pm. The pilot was Captain James B. MacQuarrie, a Pan Am pilot since 1964 with almost 11,000 flight hours under his belt.
At 6:58 pm, the aircraft established two-way radio contact with the control office, and at 7:02:44 pm, the control office transmitted its oceanic route clearance. However, the aircraft did not acknowledge this message. A loud noise was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder at 7:02:50 pm.
Shortly after, a British Airways pilot who was flying the London-Glasgow shuttle near Carlisle reported to the Scottish authorities that he could see a huge fire on the ground.
The bomb was hidden in a cassette player
At 7:03 pm, a bomb exploded on board. The explosion punched a 20-inch hole on the left side of the fuselage. No distress call was made, since the communication mechanism was destroyed by the bomb. The nose of the plane was blown off and separated from the rest of the aircraft within three seconds, and the rest of the plane was blown into many fragments.
Forensic specialists later determined the source of the bomb from a tiny fragment on the ground that came from the circuit board of a radio and cassette player. Made of the odourless plastic explosive Semtex, the bomb appeared to have been placed inside the radio and tape deck in a suitcase. Another fragment, found embedded in a piece of shirt, helped identify the type of automatic timer.
The majority of the passengers were US citizens
Of the 259 people on board, 189 were US citizens. Those killed included nationals from 21 different countries in five different continents, and the victims ranged from 2 months to 82 years old. 35 of the passengers were students of Syracuse University who were returning home for Christmas after studying at the university’s London campus.
Nearly all of those on board died instantly from the explosion. However, a flight attendant was found alive on the ground by a farmer’s wife, but died before help could reach them.
Pathologists suggest that some passengers may have remained alive briefly after impact, while another report concluded that at least two of the passengers might have survived if they had been found soon enough.
The bomb caused death and destruction on the ground
Within eight seconds of the explosion, the plane wreckage had already travelled around 2km. 11 residents on Sherwood Crescent in Lockerbie were killed when a wing section of the plane hit 13 Sherwood Crescent at around 500mph, before exploding and creating a crater around 47m long.
Several other houses and their foundations were destroyed, while 21 structures were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished.
The small and otherwise inconspicuous town of Lockerbie lost its anonymity in the face of international coverage of the attack. Within days, many of the passengers’ relatives, most from the US, arrived there to identify the dead.
Volunteers in Lockerbie set up and staffed canteens which stayed open 24 hours a day and offered relatives, soldiers, police officers and social workers free food, drinks and counselling. The people of the town washed, dried and ironed every piece of clothing that wasn’t deemed to be of forensic value so that as many items as possible could be returned to the relatives.
The bombing caused international uproar
The attack drew international attention, and a major case to find those responsible was launched, which remains one of the biggest investigations in British history.
Participating in the investigation were an array of international police organisations from countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the UK. FBI agents collaborated with Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary in the local area, who were the smallest police force in Scotland.
The case required unprecedented international cooperation. Since the debris had rained down over some 845 square miles of Scotland, FBI agents and international investigators combed the countryside on hands and knees looking for clues in virtually every blade of grass. This turned up thousands of pieces of evidence.
Investigations also saw some 15,000 people interviewed in dozens of countries across the world, and 180,000 pieces of evidence examined.
It was eventually revealed that the US Federal Aviation Administration had been warned about the attack. On 5 December 1988, a man telephoned the US Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, and told them that a Pan Am flight from Frankfurt to the US would be blown up within the next two weeks by someone associated with the Abu Nidal Organisation.
The warning was taken seriously and all airlines were notified. Pan Am charged each of their passengers a $5 security surcharge for a more thorough screening process. However, the security team at Frankfurt found the written warning from Pan Am under a pile of papers the day after the bombing.
A Libyan national was charged with 270 counts of murder
Several groups were quick to claim responsibility for the bombing. Some believed the attack was specifically targeted at Americans in retaliation for the downing of an Iran Air passenger flight by a US missile earlier in 1988. Another claim stated that the attack was in retaliation for a 1986 US bombing campaign against Libya’s capital city of Tripoli. The British authorities initially believed the former.
It was partly by tracing the purchase of clothes found in the suitcase with the bomb that two Libyans, alleged to be intelligence agents, were identified as suspects. However, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi refused to turn them over. As a result, the US and United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions against Libya. It was only a decade later, in 1998, that Gaddafi finally accepted a proposal to extradite the men.
In 2001, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was convicted of 270 counts of murder and was sentenced to 20 (later 27) years in prison. The other suspect, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted. In 2003, the Libyan government agreed to pay damages to the families of the victims of the attack.
In 2009, terminally ill al-Megrahi was allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds. The US strongly disagreed with the Scottish government’s decision to release him.
Shockwaves from the Lockerbie bombing are still felt today
It is widely believed that more conspirators contributed to the attack but escaped justice. Some parties – including some families of the victims – believe that al-Megrahi was innocent and the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and that those truly responsible for their loved ones’ murders remain at large.
Nonetheless, the terrible events of the Lockerbie bombing are embedded into the fabric of the small town of Lockerbie forever, while painful reverberations of the attack continue to be felt internationally today.