The town scarred by Pan Am flight 103

21 December 1988

A bomb blows a passenger plane from the sky above Scotland

270 people are killed
This is Lockerbie’s story

Marjory McQueen was in the living room of her home in Lockerbie watching television with her teenage daughter Victoria.

It was the shortest day of the year and there were just four more days until Christmas.

Marjory McQueen saw the sky turn orange

Marjory McQueen saw the sky turn orange

For the McQueen family, like millions of others in the UK, the must-see midweek show was This is Your Life.

Children’s entertainer Harry Corbett was the celebrity being surprised by presenter Michael Aspel who was dressed as Sooty, one of Corbett’s glove puppet creations.

As the programme got into its rhythm, Marjory became unsettled by a noise – “I think I hear thunder,” she said to 14-year-old Victoria.

But instead of rumbling away, the thunder kept getting louder. “Oh, I wonder if the boiler’s about to explode,” the 42-year-old thought.

The whole sky turned orange and there were flames hundreds of feet up into the air

Marjory McQueen

Marjory, whose doctor husband Ken was out with friends, was so baffled by this sound she ventured into the cold wintry night.

She recalls: “When I went outside, I was aware of something just going past the house.

“And then, within five seconds, there was this enormous - it wasn’t an explosion, I would never call it an explosion - it was a ‘crump’. That was all I heard.

“And then there was a whoosh, and suddenly the whole sky turned orange, and there were flames hundreds of feet up into the air. I had no idea what had happened.”

A few hundred yards away from her home in this small town in south-west Scotland, a scene of unimaginable devastation was unfolding.

Rosebank Crescent
Sherwood Crescent
Sydney Place
Tundergarth field

A town on fire

Canon Patrick Keegans had recently been appointed parish priest and was looking forward to spending his first Christmas in Lockerbie, where he lived at 1 Sherwood Crescent.

The clergyman had made new friends in the street and that evening he was due to meet up with two of them, Dora and Maurice Henry.

Fr Keegans had recently moved to Lockerbie

Fr Keegans had recently moved to Lockerbie

He planned to take his visiting mother to the Henrys’ after watching the evening news on television.

Before they left, he went upstairs to make sure he had hidden his mother’s Christmas present.

Suddenly he heard what he thought was a military plane overhead. To Fr Keegans, it sounded like it was going to crash into a nearby field.

“Immediately after that, there was an enormous explosion,” he says.

The shaking stopped and to his surprise he was uninjured.

Downstairs, Fr Keegans found his mother safe, having been shielded from the blast by a fridge freezer.

Houses in Sherwood Crescent were destroyed in the explosion

Houses in Sherwood Crescent were destroyed in the explosion

The pair stumbled out of the house into a scene of destruction. Sherwood Crescent was on fire and most of the houses were destroyed.

The bodies of the Henrys were never found. They were among 11 residents of Sherwood Crescent who died that night.

Bodies in the garden

Peter Giesecke lived in Park Place in the Rosebank area of Lockerbie - a quiet neighbourhood of neat former council houses, arranged around play parks on the eastern edge of town.

The 35-year-old’s three children were in bed when, just after 7pm, he heard a deep rumbling sound.

Peter Giesecke heard a huge crash at his back door

Peter Giesecke heard a huge crash at his back door

From his front window, he saw a bright light fall from the sky and explode on the ground close to nearby Sherwood Crescent.

Within moments there was a huge crash at the back door. The lights went out and the family were in darkness.

“The children had come down the stairs, they were screaming, there was glass and debris all over the place,” he says.

“So I got a torch and I shone the torch outside.”

There was a strong smell of aviation fuel and debris was scattered across his garden.

But worse than that were the bodies.

“There were bodies over my hedge, they were lying outside the front windows. They were all over the place.”

Forever in his mind is the girl lying on his garden hedge.

“I shall always remember that girl - she was wearing a blue top, a sweater.”

The remains of more than 60 people were eventually removed from this small corner of the town.

A plane fell from the sky

Just over 35 minutes before the explosion, Pan Am flight 103 took off from Heathrow Airport and headed almost directly north.

After crossing the border with Scotland, the pilot guided the plane slightly to the west.

It was due to head out over the Atlantic, bound for New York’s John F Kennedy airport.

But shortly after 7pm, PA103 disappeared from radar screens.

Multiple signals were seen fanning out and downwards from its last radar position.

There was no distress call. Afterwards there was radio silence.

There were 259 passengers and crew on board.

There was a bomb in the forward hold.
It was hidden inside a radio cassette recorder which was in a suitcase.
Within 46 seconds of its mid-air detonation, the remains of the plane hit the ground.

The cockpit and the forward section of the plane, along with the crew and passengers inside, fell 31,000ft to the ground.

It landed in a field near Tundergarth Church, two-and-a-half miles east of Lockerbie.

The rest of the 747 went into a steep, gliding dive, from 31,000ft to 19,000ft.

By now almost directly above Lockerbie, the entire wing section broke off.

The wings and the fuel tanks dropped down in a straight line, landing on Sherwood Crescent, close to the home of Fr Keegans.

More than 1,500 tonnes of material was blown into the air, leaving a crater 143ft long.

The back end of the plane, which contained most of the flight’s passengers, fell on Rosebank - the area around Peter Giesecke’s family home.

Just over the fence from Peter’s garden, houses in Rosebank Crescent bore the brunt of the crash.

A huge slice was taken out of the side of one home, exposing bedrooms to the open air.

‘A gruesome mess’

George Stobbs was a police inspector at Lockerbie. A former miner, he was a “rural bobby”, just a few years away from retirement.

That night, his wife heard the explosion from their home in Lochmaben, four miles to the west of Lockerbie.

George Stobbs witnessed the immediate aftermath of the crash

George Stobbs witnessed the immediate aftermath of the crash

When he learned that a plane had crashed, he went straight back on duty.

George was keen to understand the scale of the devastation.

“I went to Rosebank and there was this part of the fuselage which was buried in the garden, it had clipped the side of a house,” he says.

“And there was a lot of people still inside. No bodies had been removed by that time. Eventually they took 60 people out of that part of the plane.”

Military personnel were brought in to help emergency service workers

Military personnel were brought in to help emergency service workers

From there, he went to Tundergarth where the nose cone was lying in a field.

With its windows still intact, from one angle the wreckage looked “not too bad”.

“But obviously when you went round to the other side of the aircraft, it was just miles of wires and people strapped in seats. It was a gruesome mess inside.”

Just a few hours after the explosion, Josephine Donaldson and her husband Robert went back to their house.

There was a rumour that looters were already in the area, and they wanted to make sure their home in Carlisle Road was secure.

The town was full of fires, debris, ambulances, firefighters, and police. The area around their house was cleared amid fears a nearby petrol station could catch fire.

Josephine Donaldson found a girl's handbag in her garden

Josephine Donaldson found a girl's handbag in her garden

The Donaldsons crept home along the fields behind their home.

Once inside, Josephine looked out into her garden and spotted a handbag lying on the ground.

“I opened it up, and there was this girl’s 21st birthday cards,” she says.

“Her name was Nicole Boulanger, and she had been 21 on the 28th October that year.”

When she switched the news on, Josephine saw Nicole’s mother waiting at the airport in New York.

Nicole Boulanger was one of 35 students from Syracuse University

Nicole Boulanger was one of 35 students from Syracuse University

“I just felt so, so sad,” she says.

“She was there to meet her daughter at the airport and then discovered that the Pan Am 103 had been blown up, and I just felt how strange having her daughter’s handbag.

“And that’s when I decided right away, I would look after that girl and always put a flower down at the memorial garden for her.”

Nicole Boulanger was a talented singer, dancer, and musician. She was studying for a degree in musical theatre, and her coming-of-age had coincided with the trip of a lifetime.

Nicole celebrated her 21st birthday in London, where she was one of 35 students from New York State’s Syracuse University who had just completed a term studying in the capital.

They all lost their lives in the Lockerbie bombing.

Lockerbie is changed

Thursday 22 December 1988 was the first day of a changed Lockerbie.

Across the town, across Scotland, across the world, the scale of the tragedy was becoming clear.

Rescue workers and media flooded in.

In the surrounding hills, police and rescue teams were finding and tagging the bodies of the victims.

Soldiers searched the streets for parts of the wrecked passenger plane 

Soldiers searched the streets for parts of the wrecked passenger plane 

They brought them back to the makeshift mortuaries which were set up in Lockerbie town hall, and later the local ice rink.

Meanwhile, David and Steven Flannigan, whose parents and sister were killed in Sherwood Crescent the previous night, visited Marjory McQueen at her home.

Steven, 14, witnessed the plane crash from a neighbour’s home; his 19-year-old brother had been living in Blackpool.

Thomas and Kathleen Flannigan died with their daughter, Joanne.

Thomas and Kathleen Flannigan died with their daughter, Joanne.

She didn’t know what to say to them and for a while they sat in silence.

“And then David said to me, ‘Can I show you something?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, sure’. And he took me out to the car, and he opened the boot, and he took out a tiny watering can.

“Something that you pick up in Woolworths for 50p. And he said, ‘That’s all I can find of my family’.

“And I think it was then that we just realised, just how awful this was. And that’s something I will never, ever forget. Never.”

Despite the horror of the crash, Fr Keegans was keen to keep Christmas as normal as possible for the children of Lockerbie.

The Christmas lights remained lit but he told his bishop he would only be able to say one short prayer during midnight mass.

“Well, I managed to get out about 10 words, and that was it. I just cracked up.”

Many of the town’s residents were keen to help the families of the bereaved.

A group of local women set up a “laundry” to sort, wash and iron clothes recovered from the wreckage.

They matched them to their owners, packed them up and sent them to the victims’ families.

Josephine Donaldson – who found Nicole Boulanger’s handbag in her garden – was among the volunteers.

Amy Elizabeth Shapiro was among the passengers on Flight 103

Amy Elizabeth Shapiro was among the passengers on Flight 103

“Some of the boxes the police would give you, you just did it on autopilot, others you maybe had a wee look through,” she says.

“And this particular day, it was a portfolio I was interested in, and obviously she was one of the students, and she had these lovely photographs, and inside her portfolio was her 21st birthday cards, and she had the same birthday as Nicole Boulanger.

“She’d celebrated her birthday on the 28th October. Her name was Amy Beth Shapiro. So I always referred to these two girls as my two girls.”

During the weeks that followed the bombing, relatives of the Pan Am passengers arrived in Lockerbie.

They sought comfort and answers about the deaths of their loved ones.

Peter Giesecke learned that the girl whose body he found in his back garden was Anne Lindsey Otenasek.

The 21-year-old social work student was a native of Baltimore and one of the 35 Syracuse students.

Sometime later, her parents came to Peter’s front door.

He recalls that the student’s mother said “I believe my daughter was found in your garden”.

Peter showed her exactly where he found the body and they talked about it all night.

“We actually went out for tea that night and they were a very, very, nice couple,” he says.

“And we still keep in contact at Christmas time and send cards and send flowers.”

An unfinished story

Twelve years after Pan Am 103 fell on Lockerbie, Libyan intelligence agent Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted of mass murder.

The trial took place in a Scottish court specially set up at Camp Zeist in The Netherlands.

He was sentenced in 2001 to 27 years in a Scottish prison but was released on compassionate grounds eight years later after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

He died in 2012. But the story did not die with him.

Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds

Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds

Doubts about the safety of his conviction and the part played by the CIA in gathering evidence against Megrahi persist to this day.

Megrahi’s family is currently making a third attempt to appeal against his conviction. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is now considering whether there are grounds to refer his case to the appeal court.

There is no one view on this in Lockerbie.

For Peter Giesecke, Megrahi was “guilty all the way” and he was against his early release. But he does not think Megrahi was the sole murderer.

“It hasn’t come completely out and I don’t think it will. We’ll never get to the root of it. I don’t think so. Megrahi was the main man but there’s other men out there as well.”

Dr Jim Swire lost his daughter, Flora, in the Pan Am bombing

Dr Jim Swire lost his daughter, Flora, in the Pan Am bombing

Marjory McQueen has little interest in the legal and political fallout from the bombing.

“I really, really felt that what Lockerbie was about, was about looking after the people who so tragically lost their lives here,” she says. “And that’s what we want to be remembered for.”

Fr Keegans, who is now retired, joined the Justice for Megrahi campaign after meeting Megrahi and his family.

The group, which was set up by Dr Jim Swire, the father of one of the British victims of the bombing, is backing the push for an appeal.

Lockerbie lives with us, we’re part of Lockerbie and Lockerbie’s part of us

Fr Patrick Keegans

“I can’t live with myself being silent, when I’m truly convinced that this man has been unjustly convicted,” Fr Keegans says.

“Lockerbie is an unfinished story from the point of view of the legal aspects.

“But for those of us who experienced Lockerbie, Lockerbie’s story will never come to an end. Lockerbie lives with us, we’re part of Lockerbie and Lockerbie’s part of us.”

“All aspects of Lockerbie stay with us. The horror, the tragedy, the sadness, the grief, the support and love that was shown. All of that stays with us.”

Today Lockerbie is a neat, handsome town which appears to be doing rather well.

It stands beside the motorway linking Glasgow and Carlisle, and it is a market town for the surrounding farms.

Home to 4,000 residents, it was never a remote, isolated village - but it never expected to be the centre of global terrorism and tragedy.

It has changed a lot in three decades, with new factories and housing estates contributing to a slight population increase.

I’m very proud to say that I live in Lockerbie, and that the town reacted the way it did

Marjory McQueen

Where families were wiped out, lives cut short and homes destroyed, there are memorials - but there is also new life.

In Sherwood Crescent - the epicentre of the devastation - houses have been rebuilt alongside a modest stone of remembrance.

To the west of the town is Dryfesdale Cemetery, where a visitor centre tells the story of Pan Am 103 and the Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial stands in silent testimony to the 270 dead.

Street sculptures celebrate Lockerbie's connection with agriculture

Street sculptures celebrate Lockerbie's connection with agriculture

The other lasting memorial is the scholarship which every year gives two students from Lockerbie Academy the chance to study at Syracuse University.

The university’s motto is “Look Back, Act Forward”. It could speak for the whole town and all those whose lives were touched by the murders.

Marjory McQueen says the scholarship proves that good can come out of terrible tragedy.

“I’m very proud to say that I live in Lockerbie, and that the town reacted the way it did,” she says.

“I think, in a way, when something like this happens, it’s a terrible tragedy. It’s dreadful. But if you wait long enough, good comes out of it.

“And anyone who comes to Lockerbie, I’m very pleased to say that they are met and are shown round. And Lockerbie will never, never forget their relatives, and how they died here.”

Visitors to the town pay tribute to the victims of flight 103

Visitors to the town pay tribute to the victims of flight 103

Josephine Donaldson is typical of the people in Lockerbie - proud of the way they came together, but reluctant to take credit for the part she played.

Twice a year, she visits the memorial in a small act of remembrance for Nicole and Amy Elizabeth, two young women she never met but still refers to as “my girls”.

“I always put the flowers on there for their birthday and the 21 December. I never told anyone, I never signed the card, I just put ‘JD’.

“I just felt I had to do it. I had a son, and if that had happened in America and I never got him home, I would have hoped someone would have done the same.”