THEY were a small production line, washing clothes for hours on end, working in an atmosphere saturated with a tangible grief.
It wasn’t long before they began to unearth personal items such as rolls of camera film, which they took the time and care to process in order to identify the deceased. Among the tens of thousands of items unearthed from the lorry loads of debris carted in for storage were wallets, rings and jewellery. The items had to be given a clinical description and a number relating to the sector of the crash site where they had been discovered.
The scar left on the landscape by the Lockerbie bombing was one of the most powerful images that haunted the world’s television screens in the late 1980s. It turned a quiet town into a disaster site. There were no casualties to speak of, only bodies. Now, almost 15 years later, on the north side of 46th Street in New York, just east of 10th Avenue, is the tiny Theatre@St Clement’s. It seats only 151 people but has a reputation as one of Manhattan’s premier ‘off-Broadway’ venues.
New Yorkers have been gathering here to watch a remarkable new play about those women who live thousands of miles away in Scotland. The Women of Lockerbie, written by Alaskan-born playwright Deborah Brevoort, is believed to be the first dramatisation anywhere of the Lockerbie laundry project. Brevoort has only been to Scotland once - she visited Edinburgh in the 1970s on a quick tour of the UK - and has never seen Lockerbie. But she, like millions of other Americans, feels a strong affinity to the community.
The play, written in the style of a Greek tragedy, is set in the aftermath of the 1988 bombing, which killed all 259 on board and 11 local residents on the ground. "Although this is a Scottish story, there is an awful lot in it that speaks to Americans," Brevoort says from her home in New York. "September 11 gave us a new context in which to view the Pan Am 103 disaster. Suddenly people have an understanding of what happened then that they didn’t before."
Lockerbie councillor Marjorie McQueen recalls how her husband, Kenneth, the local doctor at the time, spent days with the police teams working on the crash site. "They went around desperately trying to find someone who was alive, but of course there wasn’t anybody," she says. "So he spent that time simply certifying the dead."
Apart from the bodies, there was also a small mountain of clothes and other belongings. The hold of the aircraft had spilled out over the surrounding countryside, and hundreds of suitcases spread their contents for miles around.
"There was so much of it that had literally just fallen from the sky, the town felt we should return it to the families of those it belonged to," McQueen explains. After the tragedy, most local residents had volunteered to help in the clear-up in some respect or other. Evelyn Crossar, now 74, recalls she had been unable to do anything as she had injured her arm. When it healed a week or so after the tragedy, she put her name forward, knowing how close she had come to disaster herself - her home had received minor damage in the crash.
At that point the laundry was just being set up in premises owned by a local business. Police teams would first check the items, holding back things that might be used for evidence in a later trial, sending the remainder through to the women to clean.
"It was a very cathartic process for all who took part," Crossar admits. "We just wanted to help in whatever way we could, but cleaning those clothes and preparing them to be sent back was really quite moving. We washed the clothes, ironed them, put them back in their suitcases and sent them back off to America as soon as we could. I understand the families over there really appreciated it - it was important for us, too."
The laundry is the central focus of Brevoort’s play. It is the fictional story about the parents of one American victim of the bombing who travel to Scotland to attend an anniversary memorial service. The New Jersey couple lost their son on the flight but his remains were never identified. Finally they are able to come to terms with his death with the help of the Lockerbie women who start the laundering programme.
"I got the idea from watching a programme about Lockerbie in 1997," Brevoort says. "It seemed to me to have all the elements of a Greek tragedy, so I wrote it in that style. It was only after I completed my draft that I started doing some research and phoning people up who were involved."
Brevoort admits the play is a stylised version of events but says she hopes to represent the emotional power of what happened accurately. "I have changed the historical order of things but I never set out to make a docu-drama," she says.
Audiences attending the play, which finishes its five-week run tonight, have certainly been impressed. The Village Voice newspaper praised its "haunting atmosphere" and "solemn dignity". The playwright has hopes that one day the production will be seen in Scotland too. "It would be great if it was staged there," Brevoort says. "There has been a lot of interest from around the world and I would be very happy for Scottish people to see it and for people in Lockerbie to let me know what they think about it."