Remembering Lockerbie 20 years on

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TODAY is the 20th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing. Astonishing to think that it has been so long.

The sheer brutality of the disaster and its telescoping scale, from the huge numbers of dead to the visceral horror of the manner of individual deaths, has meant that the destruction of Pan Am 103 over the Scottish border town is immune to the usual comforting equation – time plus distance equals a memory minus pain. Brought to mind on anniversaries such as this, the details still have the power to clutch at the hearts even of those not personally affected. For those who were in Lockerbie at the time, or very soon after, it remains a faultline on either side of which the rest of their lives are grouped.

At a little after 7pm on December 21, 1988, while the unwitting town 31,000 feet below watched This is Your Life or Terry Wogan, a bomb detonated in the cargo bay of a Boeing 747 travelling from London to New York, punching a 20-inch hole in the fuselage just below the 'P' in Pan Am. Within seconds, the aircraft broke apart. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, as well as 11 residents of Sherwood Crescent in Lockerbie, where the wings and the part of the fuselage that was full of kerosene exploded, destroying several houses and blasting a crater 47 metres long. But many more lives were changed irreversibly. It's as if the shock waves continued to fan out from the initial explosion and carried on across decades and oceans, causing settled existences to pitch and yaw.

Yet Lockerbie, visited on a frosty December day, seems at first glance a town untouched by tragedy. The High Street and the controversial newish Tesco, which some regard as emblematic of the end of small-town life, are both busy with pre-Christmas shoppers. All this bustle is watched over by the bronze war memorial – a verdigris angel holding a sword and a laurel wreath. At one time, this was the only public remembrance of the dead in Lockerbie, but now there are several, and of course every resident living at the time carries a memorial within their own mind.

Maxwell Kerr lived on Rosebank Crescent, one of the worst affected streets, in 1988. He is 72, has stayed in Lockerbie his whole life, and loves it here. We look around the area while he points out crash sites and memorials; he also talks about his own memories of that night, which veer from the creepily banal (the in-flight cutlery and food trays scattered across the road) to details, such as a baby found dead in a tree, so profoundly horrible that they recall Goya's Disasters of War.

It's strange to drive with Kerr through the beautiful countryside to the nearby village of Tundergarth while he recalls both bucolic childhood days spent swimming outside and the "pitter-patter" of bodies and debris falling all around in the night. Still, he has far more good memories of Lockerbie than bad, and seems to have borne with admirable humanity even the loss of his good friend Tom Flannigan, who was vapourised in the Sherwood Crescent explosion.

The only glimpse of anger from Kerr is directed at those in the town who would have the 20th anniversary pass with as little ceremony as possible. "I don't think we should ever forget this," he says. "The anniversary committee say they want it to be low key, but they have to remember that others have opinions and will always remember what happened here – 270 deaths. That's a lot of people.

"When the anniversary comes, they are having a ceremony in Dryfesdale Cemetery and a service up at Tundergarth. But it annoys me that there's nothing being done at Sherwood, Rosebank and Park Place." He plans to have unofficial wreath-laying ceremonies at those locations.

Inevitably, Lockerbie has moved on in 20 years. No pupils now studying at the local secondary school were even born in 1988, and the disaster is something that is taught briefly in second year, as it cannot be taken for granted that this "taboo subject" – as headmaster Graham Herbert calls it – will be raised within families. There is also some resentment in Lockerbie that the town, like Dunblane, remains a byword for a massacre.

Yet the individual human stories that make up the larger narrative of the disaster retain an undiminished emotional force, and it's impossible not to feel this when visiting the official memorial sites. Tundergarth Church, four miles east of Lockerbie, is near the field in which the cockpit fell. In the churchyard there is a small stone building that serves as a remembrance room. It contains a book full of the names and ages of those who died, and in a clear plastic wallet are some fading family photographs and other personal effects from the crash that remain, as yet, unclaimed: a toothpick with an American flag stuck to it; a little silver medal engraved with an angel. There is also a visitors' book in which, a fortnight ago, a couple whose daughter was on the plane wrote, "You fell here into the arms of the people of Lockerbie. Our hearts are heavy with the loss and we think of you always. Mom and dad."

As a postscript they have written, "God made the Scots that bit better," a remark that speaks of the lasting friendship between the people of Lockerbie and the American families who, immediately after the crash, travelled here to see where their loved ones died. They were met with great sympathy by the townsfolk, and have returned many times over the years.

In the visitors' centre of Dryfesdale Cemetery, steward Jimmy Gordon says he never knows who is going to walk through the door. Some days you get 100 people, sometimes none. Police and forensic scientists who worked on the inquiry have been in to pay their respects. The family of Captain James MacQuarrie, the pilot of Pan Am 103, held a service here on what would have been his birthday. Earlier this year, the ten-year-old son of Steven Flannigan – known as the orphan of Lockerbie, after his parents and sister were killed in Sherwood Crescent, and who himself died in 2000 at the age of just 26 – came here to try to find out a bit about his family.

Gordon has grown used to consoling the many people who come here and get upset. "I've got broad shoulders and two arms," says the 69-year-old. "The best thing in life is a cuddle and a listening ear."

That's a typical Lockerbie comment – kindness and empathy stated simply. It's a bit of warmth to carry out into the Garden of Remembrance, which, with the afternoon wearing on and the moon rising, feels a cold and lonely spot in which to look at the names of the dead carved in granite. "You never really get over something like the disaster," a local woman said earlier. "But you do get through it." That sentiment rings true in the peace of this spot, the silence disturbed only by a rumbling passenger jet, high overhead, slicing a vapour trail into the heavens.

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Priest

FATHER Patrick Keegans had not been the priest in Lockerbie for long by December 21, 1988, but he'd had time to become close to

his neighbours. He had moved there from Whithorn at the start of the year, but in April checked into a centre for the treatment of his alcoholism and did not return to his parish until the August.

There were people in Lockerbie who were not glad to see him back, who felt that they deserved better, but he also received a great deal of support, notably from Maurice and Dora Henry, his friends down the road at 13 Sherwood Crescent.

He was getting ready to go to visit them at around 7pm on that fateful evening, when the plane destroyed their home. There was nothing left of them to bury. They and nine others were killed in the street that night. The priest's home, at 1 Sherwood Crescent, was the only house that was not either destroyed by the impact or gutted by fire. "I know I sound pretty calm," says Keegans, sitting in the lounge of his home in Ayr, where he preaches at the Cathedral of St Margaret. "But sometimes I just crack up when I talk about this, so don't be surprised if I do."

He is a small, dark-haired man of 62, with a great deal of self-possession and a deep, reassuring voice. A key figure in the town's recovery from the disaster, both through the defiant note he struck in his public sermons and in the care he gave to survivors and grieving relatives, Keegans became known internationally as 'the Lockerbie priest' – a title he considers a great honour.

Much of that night was spent going round the various hotels to which people had been evacuated, trying to see if he could recognise any members of those families whose houses had sustained a direct hit. He did not. Asked how he felt about having survived such devastation, he says, "I didn't feel guilty about being alive. But I felt especially sad about the children who had been killed, and I'd have quite gladly taken their place."

He moved back into his home on Hogmanay, the only person living in a disaster zone. "I was making a statement," he says. "I was saying, 'We'll come through and survive this. We're not lying down to it.'"

People made a big deal of the fact that it was the priest's house still standing, as if God had somehow spared him. He didn't feel that, although he was glad he was alive to help others. Surprisingly, he wasn't at all tempted to drink, and in fact believes his alcoholism was helpful as he had first-hand experience that it was possible to survive a period of suicidal despair. "I could tell people, 'Your darkness can and will lift,'" he says. "I'm grateful I was able to help people and, in a sense, to make amends for my past. I can never balance out the bad things I've done in this life, but at least I've done something worth while."

He thinks also that the fact he was from Sherwood and had stared into that abyss meant he was of more comfort to people. "What relatives of victims saw in my face was someone totally saddened," he says. "They could see I was suffering, and we would take it from there.

"The way that we worked through things was: they would tell their story of how they had got the news, and then I would tell what had happened to me. It was a two-way healing process and it helped me immensely."

Keegans left Lockerbie in 1993. He remains close to several of the American families whom he met in the town, and he has visited the US to conduct weddings and baptisms, and will speak at the memorial cairn in Arlington Cemetery, Washington, during the 20th anniversary ceremony.

He is happy now, but aware of the enormity and lasting impact of what he lived through. "There's no such thing as closure," he says. "I hate that word. Lockerbie is with us until we leave this earth."

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Legal Campaigner

Robert Black QC strolls into the caf with a bagful of books and a neckful of scarf. It is a freezing Edinburgh morning and, doubtless, he would prefer to be in South Africa, where he spends half the year and has a whole other, simpler life as a hotelier. "That's what I want," he says. "Not Lockerbie. I want to move on. But I will not move on while Megrahi is in jail."

The 61-year-old was born and raised in Lockerbie, coming from a long line of mole-catchers. He himself is a lawyer, and left the town when he was 17 to study in Edinburgh. He spent Christmas 1988 in Lockerbie with his parents, but his professional involvement in the case began five years later, when a group of British businessmen approached him to see if he could negotiate a deal between Libya and the UK and US governments over the extradition of the two men accused of bombing Pan Am 103.

The stand-off had led to sanctions that prevented the businessmen from tendering for engineering contracts in Libya. Black, who was professor of Scots law at Edinburgh University, thought the mission sounded interesting (he says he wasn't paid) and agreed to give it a bash.

This involved several trips to Libya and meetings with Colonel Gaddafi in a reinforced concrete tent on the outskirts of Tripoli. Black drafted a scheme in which Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah would give themselves up on the understanding that they would be tried before a bench of judges, no jury, sitting outside the UK.

The trial took place in 2000 and early 2001 at Camp Zeist, in the Netherlands. Fhimah was released, but Megrahi was found guilty of mass-murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Black was astonished at the guilty verdict. "The court's judgement is the shoddiest piece of legal reasoning that I have ever in my life encountered." He believes there has been a miscarriage of justice and that Megrahi will be successful in his appeal next year. "I was very angry," he says, "because I had led the Libyans to believe that they would get a fair trial under Scottish procedure."

Having met with Megrahi in Greenock prison last year, Black is convinced of his innocence "He's either honest or a very, very good actor," he says. And now he finds himself in the curious position of campaigning for the release of a man whom, to a degree, he caused to be imprisoned.

He also believes that if Megrahi does win his appeal then a new investigation into the Lockerbie bombing will have to be opened; the crime cannot be allowed to go unsolved. He, however, will not involve himself in that. Instead, retirement in the southern hemisphere beckons. "This has already been part of my life for 20 years," he says. "If there is another investigation it will go on and on and on… and I will hide out in the Karoo."

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Mother

IF SUSE LOWENSTEIN ever wants to remember exactly what she did and how she felt when she answered the phone and was told that her son Alexander had died in the bombing of Pan Am 103, all she need do is look out her back window.

In the garden of her Long Island home is Dark Elegy, a monumental sculpture of 76 female figures, each representing a relative of a Lockerbie victim at the precise moment they learned of their loved one's death.

In Lowenstein's depiction of herself, she is doubled over with pain; inside the sculpture she has placed a letter to Alexander, who was 21 at the time of his death, telling him how much she loves him. "As an artist, I deal with things that happen in my life," says Lowenstein, who is 64. "So within a year, I started portraying what it felt like to be the mother of a murdered child."

Comforted by this work, she placed an advert in the Pan Am 103 families newsletter, and in the 20 years since has met and rendered in stone dozens of grieving women. "It kept me sane," she says. "It forced me to hug the loss. My natural instinct is to push it away because it's too painful. But in working with the figures, I have had to deal with it, and I'm glad because it made the tragedy mine. It's inside me, and I live with it."

Alexander was majoring in English at Syracuse University, but had spent a year studying in London. He, along with 34 fellow students, was flying back to America for Christmas when he was killed. The Lowenstein family – Suse, Alexander's father Peter and his younger brother Lucas – were keen scuba-divers and had planned to spend the holiday in Hawaii.

Curiously, at the end of November 1988, Suse felt "an overpowering need" to see her son, which seemed fanciful as he would soon be back. But she followed her instinct and spent a week with him in London and then took him to Hamburg, her home town, to meet his German relations. "It was a wonderful family reunion," she recalls, "and we parted at the airport in Hamburg. He went back to London. I went back to New York. And two weeks later he was dead."

The Lowensteins didn't travel to Lockerbie straight after the crash. They buried their son first. "But we've now been several times and made good friends with June and Jim Wilson, on whose farm Alexander was found. Jimmy found Alexander, and therefore could tell us exactly where he fell. The indentation that his body had made in the meadow was still there. So that is where we decided to build a cairn."

They have been back most years, rebuilding the cairn where cows have rubbed against it. There's a certain horror, Suse admits, in being on the spot where Alexander met a violent end. But it is also beautiful and peaceful there. "We were very grateful that it happened in Scotland," she says. "I am not sure that the victims would have received the same kindness from anyone else but the Scots. There were so many indications that Alexander's body had been handled with tenderness and care. And when we received his clothes back, they had been cleaned and lovingly wrapped in tissue paper. That meant a great deal."

Suse's ambition now is to find a public site for Dark Elegy so it can become a national monument dedicated to the dead of Pan Am 103 and all victims of terrorism. Once agreement is reached on this, she will cast the figures in bronze. She will fund the project using the 10 million (6.7m) in compensation paid to the family by the Libyan government. "There is something shameful about receiving money for the murder of your child," she says, "but if I refused, then I would be giving Mr Gaddafi a present, and that's not acceptable."

In 1999 and early 2000, she and her husband attended the trial of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, and she remains satisfied with Megrahi's conviction on a charge of mass-murder.

Megrahi, who is serving a life sentence in Greenock prison and has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, has been given leave to appeal against his sentence next year. Lowenstein says that if he was released she really would be devastated. "But then, how much more can we lose? We already lost it all anyway. And I'm very grateful and happy to hear that he's ill."

She is concerned that, as Megrahi nears death, he will be released on compassionate grounds. "Our loved ones did not have the luxury to die in the comfort of their families," she says. "So why, of all people, should he?"

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Detective

JOHN CRAWFORD has no time for conspiracy theorists. He is impatient with those who claim that the fragment of the bomb timing mechanism discovered embedded in a scrap of cloth at the Pan Am 103 crash site was fabricated. And he dismisses as "nonsense" the claims that Tony Gauci, the Maltese who identified Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi as the man who purchased from his shop the clothes that were packed into a suitcase with the bomb, is an unreliable witness. "It pisses me off when people say Megrahi is innocent," he says. "That makes a mockery of all the work we did to make sure he ended up in court. If we hadn't done it, nobody else would have. The Americans would have had him shot somewhere. But we made him face justice."

A retired police officer, 63-year-old Crawford now works as a private investigator in the north-east of Scotland. But for several years he was part of the Lockerbie inquiry.

A detective with the Lothian and Borders force, he was woken at 3am on December 22, 1988, and told to report for duty pronto. He and his colleagues found Lockerbie "a sea of flashing blue lights" and set to work recovering bodies. "They were scattered about like a battlefield. It was a case of gritting your teeth and getting on with it. The target was getting all the bodies recovered by Christmas Day, and that happened."

He remembers every body he lifted. Although the recovery operation was on an industrial scale, he never forgot that these were human beings and deserved to be treated with as much dignity as possible. Later, he learned the names of the people he found, and a bit about their lives.

The hardest thing was picking up toys. When he closes his eyes he can still see the name of Rachael Stevenson, which along with the names of all the other victims was written on the wall of the inquiry room; she was eight, the same age as his daughter, and had been travelling with her parents and big sister.

Crawford was honoured when he was asked to join the investigation proper. His work would take him to Sweden, Jordan, Libya and especially to Malta, where he spent 18 months investigating the clothes known to have been in the suitcase with the bomb. He was sitting beside Gauci when he identified Megrahi from a line-up of a dozen photographs. He was elated then, and ecstatic when Megrahi was found guilty.

The inquiry left its mark on Crawford. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder; mostly, he thinks, from fretting that any of the many flights he took to the UK from Malta might be blown up by terrorists targeting the police. No regrets, though? "No. I'll go to my grave knowing that I and the rest of the guys did the very best we could."

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Schoolboy

JOHN WALLACE turns up for lunch carrying a stapled sheaf of paper recently discovered in his loft. On the front page, there's a word-search of band names, including Simple Minds and ZZ Top. This is the school magazine from his first year in Lockerbie Academy – 1987. It was edited and partly written by his classmate Paul Somerville.

A year later, aged 13, Somerville would be dead, killed when part of Pan Am 103 landed on his home at 15 Sherwood Crescent. "I have been thinking about Paul quite a lot," says Wallace, who is 34. "I look back at my own life and think about what I have done over the last 20 years, and he's still a wee blond-haired, freckle-faced boy, and he'll never be anything else."

We are talking in Somerton House. This was one of the hotels in Lockerbie to which people were evacuated on the night of the crash, but today the mood is jovial; there are Christmas songs and diners wearing paper crowns. At the time of the bombing, Wallace was 14 and at home in the village of Eaglesfield. This was eight miles from Lockerbie, but he felt the impact . "There was a grinding and deep rumbling, as if our house had been shoved along the ground six inches."

Wallace recently made two documentaries for Border TV about the aftermath of the disaster – the first on the town's response to the huge media presence, and the second on the way victims are remembered in Lockerbie.

In 1991, he was among the first of the Lockerbie Academy pupils to spend a year at Syracuse University, in the US, courtesy of a scholarship programme set up as a living memorial to the dead – 35 Syracuse students were killed while flying back to New York from their London campus. "Quite a lot of the senior students had known some of the kids who died personally, and they really looked after us," he says.

Back in January 1989, the school term started a little late – the FBI had taken over one of the buildings, and new classrooms had to be found for some classes. What was it like going back to school with Somerville not there? "I can't remember talking about it much. It was more the kind of thing where you see someone looking at an empty chair, but what can you say about it? You don't have the vocabulary to deal with that kind of thing. People were upset, it's fair to say."

Even more unsettling was the absence of Steven Flannigan, a teenager who had survived the crash, but whose father, mother and sister had all been killed. Flannigan never went back to Lockerbie Academy. "There were no counsellors in the school," Wallace recalls. "We didn't have to traipse along and talk it over with someone. There was a feeling that the best thing was to create an oasis of normality in the school, and I think that was the right approach."

HOW LOCKERBIE CHANGED MY LIFE

The Journalist

"YOU will recognise me," David Ben-Aryeah says on the phone from his home, "because I am six-foot-six, built like an obese gorilla, and I'll be wearing a CNN baseball cap and a grin."

Ben-Aryeah is as good as his word when he shows up the next day in the lobby of Edinburgh's Grosvenor hotel. He is carrying just two from his collection of more than 100 binders crammed with documents pertaining to the Lockerbie disaster. He has gathered 14 filing cabinets full of material over the past 20 years, and keeps it all in "a very secure place". He is 63 and in poor health, and in the event of his death he intends that these sensitive papers should be made public.

Born in Edinburgh, Ben-Aryeah had served with the Israeli military and worked as a travel agent, but by the time of the plane crash was working as a stringer for a London paper. However, via a contact in New York, he ended up broadcasting live from Lockerbie to 11 million listeners on American radio. He filed regular bulletins for several days, broke the news that the crash had been caused by a bomb, and won a major award for his work.

The downing of Pan Am 103 was not just another story for Ben-Aryeah. The tragedy prompted a personal crusade. "I made a promise at half past ten on the 21st of December 1988," he says. "I stood over the body of a young lady who had fallen out of the sky. She was lying on the grass, curled up, without a mark on her, as if she'd fallen asleep. I saw a lot of bodies that night, and I promised that if I could do anything to find out who had killed them, I'd do it."

Ben-Aryeah spent weeks at a time in Lockerbie in the year following the crash, gaining the trust of the locals, and then a further seven years travelling around Europe and the Middle East – at considerable expense (he has been made bankrupt twice) – investigating the case. He went from observer to participant, becoming a friend, adviser and spokesman for some of the UK families whose loved ones had died.

He remains close to Reverend John Mosey and his wife Lisa; Ben-Aryeah now knows more about their late daughter Helga than his own sister. The reverend is responsible for Ben-Aryeah's conversion to Christianity.

Ben-Aryeah denies that Lockerbie is an obsession, but holds in his head a level of detail, and in his heart an emotional weight, that must be exhausting.

His conversation is peopled by characters including "a fat, bald Palestinian terrorist with an artificial leg" and "a bagpipe-playing, whisky-drinking Swedish diplomat", and he clearly relishes the cloak-and-dagger stuff. But he treats Lockerbie with an earnestness that distinguishes him from your common or garden conspiracy theorist.

He also credits the disaster with making him a less self-centred person. "I made friends in the flames of Lockerbie," he says, tears on his cheeks, "that humble me even now."

Lockerbie timeline

December 21, 1988

At 7.03pm, Pan Am flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Maid of the Seas, explodes at 31,000 feet. All 16 crew and 243 passengers are killed. Large parts of the plane fall on the Dumfriesshire town of Lockerbie, causing 11 deaths. The explosion was later discovered to have been caused by a bomb inside a suitcase detonating in the cargo hold.

January 4, 1989

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attends a memorial service at Dryfesdale Parish Church, Lockerbie. Prince Charles (above, right) visits the town later that month.

November 13, 1991

Following Britain's largest criminal inquiry, led by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary, the UK's smallest police force, indictments for murder are issued against Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi (left), a Libyan intelligence officer, and Al Almin Khalifa Fhimah, the Libyan Arab Airlines station manager at Luqa airport, in Malta.

April 5, 1999

As a result of lengthy negotiations between Libya, the UK and the US, the two accused men are handed over to Scottish police at Camp Zeist, in the Netherlands (right).

May 3, 2000

The trial begins at Camp Zeist before a panel of three Scottish judges and no jury.

January 31, 2001

The verdicts are returned. Fhimah is found not guilty. Megrahi is found guilty of mass-murder and is given a life sentence, meaning at least 27 years. He is currently serving his time at Greenock prison.

march 14, 2002

Megrahi's appeal against his sentence is refused.

June 28, 2007

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission concludes that a miscarriage of justice could have occurred, and so grants Megrahi leave to appeal against his conviction for a second time. It is expected to be heard in Scotland in 2009.

October 21, 2008

Megrahi's lawyer, Tony Kelly, announces that his client, now aged 56, is suffering from advanced-stage prostate cancer. In November, an application for bail is rejected by judges.

December 12, 2008

Following an impassionated plea by Megrahi's wife Aisha that her husband should be set free to die with his family, Jim Swire (right) – whose daughter Flora died on Pan Am 103 – launches a campaign to have the prisoner released on compassionate grounds, pending his appeal.

December 21, 2008

To mark the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am 103, remembrance services take place in Lockerbie, at Heathrow airport and at the memorial cairn in Arlington Cemetery, Washington DC.