The Independent Archive: `There won't be a Christmas in Lockerbie'

23 December 1988 At 7.03pm on 21 December, Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie. Mark Douglas Home reports from Dumfriesshire
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The Independent Culture
LOCKERBIE AWOKE yesterday to a chill, grey sky and a noisy reminder that small-town life would never be the same again. A Sea King helicopter clattered overhead, disturbing the dawn. It swung towards the hills at the eastern edge of town. There, the night before, a horror story had unfolded. Wreckage from the stricken jumbo jet and dozens of bodies had hurtled through the darkness to the ground. Part of an engine came to rest by a beech tree. The bodies were strewn about the grass fields.

Retired policeman Alan Place heard a bang, a whistling noise, and then the sound of debris falling on his roof. He joined the search for survivors, but found only bodies: 40 within one and a half miles of his home. He said yesterday: "They had bounced and left craters in the ground. It was an horrific sight."

Down the slope, in a field abutting back gardens in Rosebank Crescent, there were three aircraft seats, still joined together. A Pan American In-Flight Duty Free Shop brochure was stuck on a fence. "Play and win. See inside" was written across the bottom right-hand corner.

An AA sergeant, Scott Maxwell, was one of the first people on the scene. He called in emergency services on his van radio after the crash had put local telephones out of operation. Mr Maxwell had just finished work and returned to his home in West Acres, Lockerbie, when the crash happened. "Even through the closed curtains I could see a massive orange ball lighting up the outside of the house," he said. "My daughter was upstairs in her bedroom and started screaming. I rushed outside and saw a ball of flame 200 yards to the rear of the house.

"It hit the main road and then bounced on the top of the houses there. The devastation was horrific. The damage to the houses, the bodies - words just can't describe it."

The wreckage hurtled over the railway lines which dissect the town, and headed west. It sliced off the roofs of some houses overlooking the busy A74 dual carriageway, the main road from Glasgow to Carlisle. Then it flattened maybe six others, setting them alight.

In the mayhem of falling wreckage and a blazing shower from thousands of gallons of spilled jet fuel, a huge crater was formed beside the easternmost carriageway. Five cars travelling south on the road were engulfed, their occupants dead. A maroon Vauxhall Cavalier was still there yesterday morning. Its mock-tigerskin upholstery was sprinkled with glass from the broken windscreen. It was angled across the carriageway, which had completely disappeared beneath mud and boulders gouged from the crater, some 70 yards long and 15 deep.

The wreckage which caused this terrible damage must nearly have passed over the home of Annie Rafferty, 77. She was out when the disaster happened, but she could not return to her home on Wednesday night. Two boulders had torn through the roof of the building. Yesterday morning, after spending a night at the King's Arms, she tidied up her doorstep with a dustpan. "It's terrible, it's terrible. It really is," she said. "What a crash that must have been. There were bairns too. It's pathetic."

In a few seconds, this quiet respectable market town in Dumfriesshire had become a disaster area. On Wednesday night the roads were full of police cars, fire engines, ambulances and flashing lights. The town hall had become a mortuary. The community centre was a resting place for emergency teams drafted in from all around.

An RAF mountain-rescue Land Rover was parked on the pavement outside the Presto supermarket. The cars of scores of television crews, reporters and photographers lined the main street. But there was still tinsel in the shop windows. In Moffats, a newsagent's in the high street, Margaret Tweedie sold the papers as usual. The front pages told of the night's tragedy. "Everyone is very sad. They are devastated," Mrs Tweedie said.

"It's horrifying really. There certainly won't be a Christmas in Lockerbie."

From the front page of `The Independent', Friday 23 December 1988