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.
(Please note this article contains details and images which some readers may find upsetting)
30 years ago, just before 7.20am on the chilly morning of Monday December 12th 1988, the characteristic sound of doors slamming shut on an old-style British Rail train echoed along the platform at Basingstoke station as hundreds of commuters crammed into a service bound for London Waterloo.
For the next forty minutes the train rattled along without incident.
That was until it approached a green signal which suddenly flickered to red without warning.
Unable to stop in time, the driver- Alexander McClymont– halted the train in a cutting on Wandsworth Common, just before Battersea Rise and about half a mile south of Clapham Junction station, where he climbed down from the cab and used a trackside telephone to inform the nearest signal box of the problem.
After being told there was nothing to worry about Alexander hung up but as he did so a second train- this one heading up from Bournemouth- roared around the corner at approximately 50mph.
The time was 8.13am.
According to witnesses onboard, the driver of this train- John Rolls– barged through the door of his cab in the final seconds before impact, no doubt realising it was impossible to brake in time.
The Bournemouth train ploughed into the Basingstoke service, killing John and many others instantly. To those nearby, it sounded like a bomb had gone off.
Lee Middleton– a survivor on the Bournemouth train- described the moment: “I heard a deafening noise and then all hell let loose. We were getting thrown around the carriage like rag dolls… I heard crying and moaning… I thought it was curtains for me.”
Lee found himself pinned beneath the wreckage, his gaze forced towards the clear winter sky which had been exposed after the carriage roof was, as another survivor put it, “split open like a ripe tomato.”
Back at the trackside meanwhile, Alexander could only watch in horror as carriages from his Basingstoke train were thrown into the air, hurling a number of passengers out. He immediately snatched the phone back to alert the signal box and call for emergency services.
To make matters even worse a third train tore into the area moments later, smashing into the already tangled wreckage. Mercifully this train was empty, although tragically a number of people who’d been ejected from the Basingstoke carriages were crushed beneath its wheels.
It was only by sheer fortune that a fourth train managed to stop in time just yards from the carnage.
Alongside personnel from London’s emergency services- including doctors who performed a number of operations and amputations on site, the greatest heroes that day were pupils from the Emanuel School which is located on the embankment overlooking the disaster zone.
Upon hearing the terrifying smash, teenagers far too young to witness the horror they were about to encounter scrambled down the slope to help. The very first person to enter the stricken carriages was Terry Stoppani whose birthday it happened to be that day.
He’d just turned 12 years old.
“There was a huge bang, just like a bomb explosion” Terry explained when interviewed. “I saw all parts of the train flying into the air…we jumped over the railings and climbed into the train through a broken window. The first thing I saw was legs with jeans and shoes on. There was no top half of the body… In the train people were screaming and too frightened to talk. We started pulling people out through the window.”
Another pupil- 18 year old sixth former, Simon Murie– yanked wreckage away with his bare hands, comforting victims as he did so.
Another un-named 14 year old held a trapped passenger upright in their twisted seat for several hours before they could be freed.
Many of the passengers were in a deep state of shock, so much so that they were unable to comprehend where they were or what had happened.
The young rescuers from the Emanuel School were praised by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and visited by the Secretary of State for Education who thanked them personally for “Their immense courage and maturity.”
A BBC news report from the evening of December 12th 1988 detailing the catastrophe can be viewed below:
Overall 35 people were killed and hundreds more injured in what became known as the Clapham Rail Disaster.
Amongst the dead was technician Michael Newman whose glittering theatre signs for shows such as ‘Cats’, ‘Singing in the Rain’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’ earned him the nickname, “the man who brought the West End to light.”
On a personal note, my father knew Mike and had worked alongside him installing these famous displays.
It was determined that the cause of the accident- the light which had inexplicably flicked from green to red- was down to faulty signal wiring housed within a unit that was approximately fifty years old.
The electrician who’d overlooked the fault had been on voluntary overtime which had seen him working seven days a week for the past thirteen weeks; a regime which had inevitably led to exhaustion. It was also noted his training, assessment and supervision had been woefully inadequate.
As a result, British Rail were fined £250,000 although many believed the company should’ve been prosecuted for Corporate Manslaughter.
In 1989 a memorial to those who were killed and injured was unveiled on Spencer Park which overlooks the site of the tragedy.
At 8.13am on Wednesday 12th December 2018, the train drivers’ union, ASLEF will be staging a two minute silence beside the memorial to mark the disaster’s thirtieth anniversary.
Please note this article contains details which some readers may find disturbing.
In May 2018 one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers- Dennis Nilsen– died in prison after spending 35 years behind bars for a string of gruesome murders committed during the late 1970s and early 80s.
These crimes were intrinsically linked to two north London addresses, the second of which would grant the bespectacled killer his sinister nickname; ‘The Muswell Hill Murderer.’
Nilsen was born on 23rd November 1945 in Fraserburgh, a remote Scottish fishing town located 40 miles north of Aberdeen.
Nilsen’s father- Olav Magnus Moksheim- was a Norwegian soldier who’d travelled to Scotland during World War Two. Unfortunately he was also an alcoholic and soon abandoned the family, meaning the four year old Dennis looked towards his grandfather as a paternal figure.
Although Nilsen was still young when his beloved grandfather died, his mother insisted her son view the body before the funeral; an event which Nilsen would later claim made him develop a disturbing obsession with corpses.
When he was 16 Nilsen signed up with the army where he trained to be a chef, mastering butchery skills which, as we’ll soon see, were later put to ghastly efficient use.
After serving in West Germany, Aden and Northern Ireland Nilsen left the military in the early 70s and headed to London where he enrolled with the Metropolitan Police Force, spending a brief period as an officer stationed at Willesden Green.
He soon realised however that law enforcement wasn’t for him and so adopted a new role as a civil servant, working at a JobCentre on Denmark Street– a small road in the heart of London’s West End nicknamed ‘Tin Pan Alley‘ which has long been associated with the music industry.
The JobCentre in which Nilsen worked has since been transformed into a branch of the Fernadez and Wells cafe chain.
In the autumn of 1975 Nilsen intervened to rescue a young man named David Gallichan who was being threatened outside a pub.
He invited David back to his bedsit on Cricklewood’s Teignmouth Road and the pair quickly embarked upon a relationship.
However, after the couple moved a short distance to a larger flat at 195 Melrose Avenue, David- who Nilsen nicknamed ‘Twinkle‘- quickly came to realise that Nilsen was short-tempered and verbally abusive.
Dennis Nilsen’s abrasive attitude can be witnessed in a number of Cine Films which he and David shot during this period…click below to view.
After one particularly explosive argument in 1977, David decided to pack his bags and leave- a lucky escape in hindsight.
Now alone, Nilsen began drinking heavily and it was whilst boozing in the Cricklewood Arms on the 30th December 1978 that he encountered his first victim; a 14 year old Irish youth named Stephen Holmes.
Stephen had been to a concert in Willesden and was returning home to Kilburn when he decided to try his luck in the pub. When the youngster was refused service at the bar, Nilsen- who claimed he thought Stephen was 17- invited the lad back to Melrose Avenue for a drink.
Following a heavy session, he awoke at dawn to find Stephen still fast asleep.
“I was afraid to awake him in case he left me” Nilsen would later state, adding “He was going to stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not.”
With this grim decision made, Nilsen strangled the sleeping youngster with a necktie before plunging his head into a bucket of water.
When interviewed about Stephen’s murder, Nilsen chillingly said, “I had started down the avenue of death and possession of a new kind of flat-mate.”
Stephen’s body was stashed beneath the floorboards where it would remain for eight months until Nilsen decided to burn the remains in the back garden; a plot of land to which he conveniently had exclusive access.
Nilsen’s second recorded victim was a 23 year old Canadian tourist named Kenneth Ockendon who he met during a lunchtime drinking session at the Princess Louise pub on Holborn in December 1979.
As twilight set in and London’s Christmas lights began to sparkle, Nilsen gave Kenneth a guided tour of the city.
He then invited the Canadian back to his flat for a nightcap and as the pair knocked back alcohol Nilsen suggested Kenneth should listen to some of his records- which were largely defined by experimental music such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and The Who’s rock-opera, Tommy.
As Kenneth donned a pair of headphones and zoned out, Nilsen slunk behind his chair, grabbed the headphone cord and used it to garrotte his guest.
Once again, Nilsen hid his victim’s remains beneath the floorboards- although he would sometimes haul Kenneth’s corpse out on certain evenings and eerily rest it beside him whilst watching television.
A new decade was now on the horizon and with it would come many more murders…
In his seemingly normal everyday life, Dennis Nilsen- or ‘Den’ as he was known to his colleagues at the Denmark Street Jobcentre where he worked- was a staunch trade unionist and in May 1980 he attended a union conference in Southport.
After this sojourn he caught a train back to Euston station and it was at the bustling terminal he encountered his third victim: 16 year old Martyn Duffey.
Martyn was a troubled young man from Birkenhead who’d hitchhiked to London four days previously and was already sleeping rough.
Feigning a good Samaritan routine, Nilsen invited the youth back to Melrose Avenue with the offer of food and a clean bed.
Once his grateful guest was asleep, Nilsen crawled upon the sheets and pinned him down with his knees. He then twisted a custom made ligature around Martyn’s neck and throttled the youngster. Although Nilsen put all of his might into the attack he noticed Martyn was still breathing and so dragged his limp victim into the kitchen where he completed the evil deed by drowning the teen in the sink.
As 1980 progressed Nilsen began to kill so often- and was always blind drunk when he did so- that he could recall fewer of his victims’ personal details.
He was however clear about dates and would later become infuriated with the press when they made mistakes regarding them.
He knew his fourth victim was named Billy Sutherland; a male prostitute who he killed in August 1980, but of the murder itself he could remember nothing, simply stating he woke up to find “another dead body.”
The next slew of victims were men who’d existed on the fringes of society and as such their identities remain unknown to this day.
In September there was an Irish labourer, of whom Nilsen could only recall he had rough hands.
In October there was a man who he believed to be either Mexican or Filipino who he met in the Salisbury pub.
In November, a homeless man he’d discovered dossing in a doorway on Charing Cross Road– when strangled, Nilsen recalled that this victim kicked his legs in the air as if pedalling a bicycle.
In December 1980 he murdered a “long haired hippy”.
After killing each victim Nilsen would bathe the body before keeping it around the house for days on end as a bizarre form of company; chatting to the corpse when he returned home from work, sitting it beside him whilst watching television and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, even sharing his bed with it.
Once decomposition set it Nilsen would use the butchery skills he’d mastered as an army chef to dissect the bodies and then hide the severed parts beneath the floorboards. As for the organs, he’d toss them into an alley for birds and foxes to pick at.
On one occasion he stuffed entrails into a shopping bag which he absently dumped on the pavement whilst walking his beloved dog, Bleep.
This gruesome package was discovered by a member of the public who handed it into police- although the find led nowhere.
Unsurprisingly, the stench in Nilsen’s flat was appalling; so much so that the neighbours had cause to complain. They also noted how Nilsen kept his windows permanently open, even in the winter.
By late 1980 the sheer number of body parts was becoming a real problem for Nilsen and so towards the end of the year he built a large bonfire in the garden which he used to cremate the remains, heaping old tyres on top of the pyre to disguise the smell.
But still the killing continued.
In January 1981 he met an “18 year old blue-eyed Scot” in the Golden Lion, Soho who he invited home for a drinking contest.
In February, there was a victim who Nilsen knew only as the “Belfast Boy” and in April a skinhead who he met in Leicester Square.
This individual had a tattoo around his neck; a dashed line bearing the words ‘cut here’- an instruction which Nilsen took quite literally when carving up the body for disposal.
Again, the identities of these men murdered in Cricklewood remains a mystery…
It is estimated Dennis Nilsen murdered 11 men at 195 Melrose Avenue, the last being 24 year old Malcolm Barlow who, on the 17th September 1981, had the misfortune to fall ill outside the notorious address.
Curiously, Nilsen didn’t take immediate advantage of Malcolm’s condition, choosing instead to help by phoning an ambulance.
The following day Nilsen discovered Malcolm- who’d come to thank the stranger for his kindness- perched on his doorstep. Nilsen asked the young man in for a drink but soon considered him a “nuisance” and proceeded to choke his guest to death.
Days later, the landlord requested Nilsen vacate the property as it was due a renovation. This prompted Nilsen to build another bonfire on which to cremate the remains of his most recent victims.
Then, on the 5th October 1981, he moved to an attic flat at 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill.
With no garden and zero chance of hiding bodies beneath the floorboards, this was possibly a conscious choice by the serial killer who claimed he was desperate for his spree to cease.
But still he continued.
The first victim murdered at Cranley Gardens was 23 year old John Howlett who he met whilst drinking near Leicester Square. As usual, Nilsen invited him home where the pair drank until John passed out. Rudely awakened to find himself being strangled, John put up a ferocious fight and almost succeeded in killing Nilsen himself.
Then, in June 1982, Nilsen spotted 27 year old Graham Allen attempting to flag a taxi on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Nilsen stepped in and the pair ended up sharing the cab back to Cranley Gardens. Of this murder, Nilsen recalled few details; simply that he’d cooked an omelette for Graham before murdering him and then kept his body in the bathtub for several days.
Nilsen’s final victim was Stephen Sinclair, a troubled young man who he encountered on January 26th 1983.
As he’d done with previous victims, Nilsen invited Stephen to listen to records- his favourite at the time being ‘O Superman’; an eerie electronic song by Laurie Anderson.
As Stephen listened through headphones, Nilsen attacked from behind, strangling him with a ligature.
To dispose of these bodies Nilsen had to improvise, dissecting each corpse and boiling the parts in a large pot on the stove.
Once the flesh softened he’d cut it into small pieces which were unceremoniously flushed down the toilet.
Unsurprisingly a blockage soon ensued- which Nilsen himself complained about- and so, on February 8th 1983, Dyno-Rod employee Michael Cattran came to assess the problem.
It didn’t take long to discover the drains were clogged with a gunky mass of flesh and bone. As Michael worked, Nilsen popped down to see what was going on, gruesomely remarking, “It looks to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
The next evening, Nilsen returned home from work to find Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay and two other police officers stationed outside his door.
When informed that they’d come to discuss the matter of human remains, Nilsen feigned ignorance, exclaiming, “Good grief, how awful!” Dismissing this act- and having already noted the horrendous stench in the flat- Inspector Jay bluntly said, “Don’t mess about, where’s the rest of the body?”
Nilsen calmly replied it was in two plastic bags in the wardrobe, adding “It’s a long story… I’ll tell you everything. I want to get it off my chest.”
Arrested on suspicion of murder he was driven to Hornsey police station and, during the short ride, matter-of-factly hinted at the sheer number of people he’d killed. After being charged he was remanded in Brixton prison.
Dennis Nilsen was tried at the Old Bailey during autumn 1983 and, after considerable debate as to wether or not he was insane, was found guilty on six counts of murder. After describing the “unforgettable tales of horror” associated with the case, the judge sentenced Nilsen to a minimum of 25 years.
The clip below is a news report broadcast shortly after Nilsen’s imprisonment.
In 1994 Nilsen’s sentence was upped to a whole life tariff meaning he was condemned to remain behind bars for the rest of his life- which he did, dying at HMP Full Sutton, East Yorkshire on 12th May 2018 aged 72.