Lockerbie and the worst Christmas imaginable

IT WAS 7pm on 21 December 1988, a wet and miserable winter evening. In the small Dumfriesshire market town of Lockerbie local people were looking forward to Christmas, some wrapping presents and others preparing their dinner. Fourteen-year-old Steven Flannigan had just braved the weather to go to a neighbour's house to set up his present of a new bicycle for his younger sister Joanne.

About 60 miles away, in Prestwick Airport's control tower, air traffic controller Alan Topp was watching his radar screen as Pan American Flight 103 from London to New York - the Clipper Maid of the Seas - crossed the Solway Firth. "Clipper 103 requesting oceanic clearance," First Officer Raymond Wagner said. It was the standard, normal request for aircraft about to cross the Atlantic.

What happened next will forever be remembered as one of the worst tragedies the world has ever known. An explosion blew apart the Boeing 747 as it cruised at 31,000 feet above the Scottish countryside with 243 passengers and 16 crew aboard. The blast sent winds with the force of a tornado through the fuselage, killing many of those on board immediately and effectively blowing the aircraft into pieces. Plane debris and dead passengers were scattered over an area of 845 square miles, from southern Scotland to northern England.

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Not a single person in the immediate area forgets where they were when their routine, pre-Christmas evening was transformed into a scene of unimaginable death and destruction. While Topp watched in disbelief as his radar screen showed the deterioration of the aircraft in dozens of bright green squares, the bulk of Pan Am 103 scored a direct hit on Lockerbie.

"The fire was falling down from the sky," said resident Jasmine Bell. "Everything was burning - the driveway, the lawn, the hedges, the rooftops." In seconds the quiet normality of Lockerbie, and all the Christmas preparation that was taking place, was shattered.

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Fire from the sky was followed by the rain of bodies, some still strapped into their seats. They landed in gardens, streets, play areas, some were even left hanging in trees. A lot of their clothing was torn away, testament to the ferocity of the blast as it ripped through the plane's fuselage.

Then, one minute after the explosion, a large section of the plane's fuselage containing the wings and 200,000lbs of aviation fuel, ploughed into a Lockerbie street. Travelling at more than 500mph it directly hit the house at 13 Sherwood Crescent with a deafening roar, the impact registered 1.6 on the Richter scale and a massive crater 155 feet long was gouged into the ground where the houses once stood.

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The aviation fuel exploded when the plane hit the ground sending what residents described as "an atomic mushroom" through the houses in the crescent. Many homes - along with the people inside - were vaporised. Another 21 homes were so badly damaged they had to be demolished. The giant fireball rose above the houses and moved towards the A74 Glasgow to Carlisle motorway, burning cars on the southbound carriageway.

Eleven residents of Lockerbie lost their lives when the plane hit. Steven Flannigan, who had taken his sister's new bicycle to a neighbour, looked out to see his house gone. Nothing of his parents, Katherine and Thomas, were ever found and his 10-year-old sister Joanne also died. The visit to his neighbour had saved Steven's life but suddenly left him an orphan.

Four members of one family, Jack and Rosalind Somerville, and their children Paul and Lynsey, who lived at number 15 Sherwood Crescent, were all killed instantly.

The scene of the crater at daybreak was beamed round the world and is seared into the public consciousness. It is an unforgettable image. Many of those in Lockerbie were in a state of terror. The explosion on the ground was, in the words of one resident, "like pictures of the Hiroshima bomb going off".

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In the fields and farm land around the town, the scene was no less horrendous. The plane's nose-cone, containing the cockpit and the bodies of several crew members, was embedded in a field beside the small church in the village of Tundergarth about three miles away. Scattered everywhere were dead bodies, body parts, aircraft wreckage, pieces of personal luggage. Resident June Wilson said: "Some (of the dead) were like waxen dolls. Other people were dismembered. Feet were missing and others had been horribly compressed by the fall."

Overnight the population of Lockerbie increased from 3,500 to 10,000 as the world's media descended on the small town. For days the residents of Lockerbie were asked to live with the bodies in their small streets and gardens, all tagged for forensic examination. Then relatives of the passengers came to identify their loved ones. Canteens were set up 24 hours a day to help feed them. Touchingly, the women of Lockerbie washed, dried and ironed every piece of clothing that was found once investigators had said it was not of forensic value.

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In all 270 people from 21 countries died, 189 of them from America. Four hundred parents lost a child, 46 parents lost their only child, 65 women were widowed, 11 men lost their wives, 140 lost a parent and seven lost both parents. It was the deadliest attack on American civilians until the tragedy on 11 September 2001.

The plane started its journey in Frankfurt, Germany, flew to Heathrow Airport and was en route for New York's John F Kennedy Airport when it exploded.

The investigation - then the largest in British history - was shared between Dumfries and Galloway Police and the FBI. They concluded that a bomb, concealed in a radio cassette player, caused the explosion. In 2000 two Libyans - Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah - were accused of the bombing. Uniquely they were tried by a Scots court held in the Netherlands. Al Megrahi was convicted of murder and his co-accused acquitted.

In a tragic twist it emerged that the bomb was timed to go off while the aircraft was over the Atlantic but the plane was running late.

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Steven Flannigan became known as the "Orphan of Lockerbie". He and his older brother David, who had been in Blackpool on the night of the terrorist attack, won a $3.2 million settlement from Pan Am. In 1993, David died at a hostel in Thailand. Steven tried to make a go of things but in August 2000, he lay down on a railroad track in Wiltshire and was killed by a train - the final victim of Scotland's worst disaster.

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