The late 1980s were notable for a relentless string of disasters which affected Britain; the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the King’s Cross fire, the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion, the Hillsborough Disaster and, as seen recently on this site, the Clapham rail crash.
Christmas 2018 marks the thirtieth anniversary of another of these appalling catastrophes: The Lockerbie bombing.
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The bar at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 heaved with Christmas travellers as Jaswant Basuta enjoyed a drink with his brother-in-law.
As Sikhs, the consumption of alcohol was discouraged but that late afternoon of December 21st 1988 was an exception as Jaswant- who’d been visiting relatives in Southall, west London- was about to begin a job in New York and a merry send off was in order.
The beer flowed too easily however and before long Jaswant realised he was running late. After hasty goodbyes he jogged through Terminal 3’s seemingly endless corridors and arrived breathless at Gate 14– only to find it’d just closed.
Despite his pleas, Jaswant was refused entry to the flight that he could now see backing away from the gate: Pan Am 103.
Jaswant wasn’t the only person to miss that fateful flight bound for New York’s JFK Airport.
Also booked on Pam Am 103 were Motown legends, The Four Tops.
On December 21st the group were at BBC Television Centre, Shepherds Bush recording a performance of their latest release, ‘Loco in Acapulco’ for a festive edition of Top of the Pops.
A second recording- this time of their classic 1967 hit, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ which was to be broadcast on the show’s new year special- was also scheduled and the group were hoping to get it in the can as quickly as possible so they could get going to Heathrow.
The show’s producer however cared little for the Four Top’s travel plans and refused to rush the schedule.
Although the group were understandably frustrated at the time, the delay saved their lives.
In Harrods meanwhile, actress Kim Catrell, who was in the UK working on ‘The Return of the Musketeers’, was purchasing a Wedgwood teapot for her mother. She too had a seat on Pan Am 103 but switched flights at the last minute in order to complete her Christmas shopping.
A clip of Kim discussing her decision can be viewed below:
Elsewhere, former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) who, despite his anarchic image, was a self-confessed stickler for time, was embroiled in a heated row with his wife, Nora whose slowness in packing meant they too had no chance of making the flight.
The couple would soon realise just how lucky they were.
Back at Heathrow, Pam Am 103- a 747 Pan-American Jumbo Jet named ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’- taxied on the crowded tarmac.
The jet was a real workhorse, having flown in to London from San Fransisco just a few hours before. Now cleaned and refuelled, it was ready to head back out across the Atlantic.
The Boeing 747 was one of the earliest built, having been delivered to Pan American Airlines in 1970. The company had originally christened the aircraft ‘Clipper Morning Light’ but changed the name to ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’ in 1979.
Shortly before its name was changed the aircraft appeared in the 1978 BBC documentary ‘Diamonds in the Sky’; a series which explored the history of aviation.
The specific episode- ‘Conquering the Atlantic’- featured footage from both inside and outside the 747 as it made a routine flight from London to New York; the same route it was set to travel ten years later on December 21st 1988.
This now extremely poignant episode can be viewed in its entirety below:
Onboard Clipper Maid of the Seas were 259 passengers and crew, including 35 students from New York State’s Syracuse University who’d just completed an international semester in London.
At 6.18pm the 747’s engines howled into life, powering the huge aircraft along the runway. As it lifted and began to climb through the dark winter sky over west London, air-traffic controller, Richard Dawson watched from Heathrow’s tower and, over the radio, wished the crew goodnight.
Unbeknownst to all, a brown Samsonite suitcase belonging to nobody onboard lurked within the jumbo’s hold.
Inside the case, bundled amongst clothing, was a Toshiba ‘Bombeat’ radio-cassette player packed with a small, but lethal amount of Semtex.
At around 7pm, 38 minutes after departing Heathrow, Pan Am 103 reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 ft and radioed Scotland’s Prestwick air-traffic control to request clearance across the Atlantic Ocean.
The communication was handled by controller Alan Topp who, moments later, saw Flight 103 vanish from his radar screen.
At the same moment residents in Lockerbie– a small, friendly town in the Scottish borders just north of Gretna Green and approximately 70 miles south of Glasgow- heard a deep rumble of thunder overhead which rapidly crescendoed into a deafening roar.
Several miles above, the Semtex bomb onboard Pan Am 103 had detonated, causing a catastrophic structural failure which ripped the 747 apart.
With its engines still running and wings fully loaded with aviation fuel, the aircraft’s devastated sections plummeted towards Lockerbie in flames, smashing into the ground with terrifying force.
An animation depicting the moment the device detonated can be viewed below:
At around the same time, a British Airways flight from Glasgow to London passed high overhead.
Glancing down from the cockpit window, pilot Robin Chamberlain saw an inferno thousands of feet below, later describing the sight as “Something that looked like the burning oil fields you see in the Middle East.”
A BBC newsflash reporting the disaster can be viewed below:
Wreckage and bodies from the doomed flight were spread over a wide area; across fields, in trees, on rooftops and in back gardens.
Homes were reduced to rubble and 11 residents on Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent were vaporised in an almighty fireball.
According to one of the first reporters on the scene, the immediate aftermath of flaming rubble set against the night sky resembled “the London Blitz of 1940”, whilst a Lockerbie resident likened it to “Walking into hell”.
Another Lockerbie resident, Ella Ramsden– who narrowly escaped with her life when her home was destroyed- was convinced armageddon had been unleashed.
All onboard Pan Am 103 perished.
Combined with victims on the ground, a total of 270 people were killed.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the individual accused of the terrorist act- Libyan national, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi– was tried at a purpose built court in the Netherlands, the witness box of which is now displayed in the Imperial War Museum.
Found guilty of the deaths of all 270 victims, al-Megrahi was sentenced to life but was controversially released on compassionate grounds in 2009 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Al-Megrahi however always protested his innocence and there are many- including some relatives of those killed- who believe he was framed and that many questions remain unanswered.
The circumstantial evidence for example used to convict Megrahi was dubious, based upon the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci who claimed to have recalled the Libyan purchasing clothing (fragments of which were found in the wreckage at Lockerbie) in his shop.
It was later revealed that Gauci had been secretly paid a huge sum for providing this evidence.
It was also said that al-Megrahi had planted the bomb by checking it in at Malta’s Luqa Airport from where it travelled to London via Frankfurt.
At the trial however no mention was made about a mysterious security breach which had occurred within Heathrow’s baggage during the early hours of December 21st 1988 when a door lock was found to have been snapped with bolt cutters.
Also, according to Heathrow baggage handler, John Bedford, an out of place brown Samsonite case was spotted on a Pan-Am 103 luggage container before the connecting flight from Frankfurt had even landed.
Sadly, 30 years on, it seems we will never have full closure over what precisely lay behind the Lockerbie atrocity.
I remember going to a London Ambulance Service Training Day after this disaster. We were shown filmed footage (taken close-up, by the emergency services) from the scene, and photographs. The idea was to prepare us for something similar happening over London. I can tell you that the images from Lockerbie and the surrounding area have stayed with me for the rest of my life.
Best wishes, Pete.
That’s a very sobering memory Pete, thank you for sharing. We drive to Glasgow several times a year and as such pass by Lockerbie, it now appears very quiet and tranquil, almost impossible to imagine the horror inflicted upon it all those years ago.
Really interesting Rob. I didn’t know about all these people who missed the flight for whatever reason.
The iconic picture of the cockpit in the field with a policeman in a yellow jacket turns out the Policeman knows my friend and we’ve been to a few gigs.
In another life some of my guy’s served time with Mcgrahie, and when he was leaving Greenock Jail you could rent out your upstairs room to Sky TV so they could get good pictures
Many thanks Stewart, some interesting links there. A number of other people missed the flight too as they apparently took heed of a mysterious, anonymous warning which had been telephoned to the American embassy in Helsinki in early December saying a Pan Am flight would be targeted. Unfortunately the warning wasn’t made more widespread.
Thanks for this post, Rob. I remember too well hearing about this on the news in Maritime Canada. Dreadful thing.
Thank you, I was very keen to write this post as I remember the event clearly too even though I was only a youngster back then. I always spare a thought for the victims and their families around this time of year.