Impact so big that it registered on the Richter scale

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The Independent Online
FLORA SWIRE, a brilliant 23-year-old medical student, was delighted that she had been able to get a ticket to spend Christmas with her boyfriend in Boston. Flora had just graduated with a first-class degree in medical sciences from Nottingham University and had been accepted to do a PhD at the Institute of Neurology in London.

On the afternoon of 21 December 1988, Flora arrived at Heathrow to join PanAm 103 - the regular Frankfurt to New York flight via London. The eldest child of Dr Jim Swire and his wife, Jane, Flora had got her ticket just few days before.

The 35 students of the University of Syracuse had also booked late. The aircraft was packed with students and that is in part why the average age of the 243 passengers was 27. Also in the queue at Heathrow was Yvonne Owen, 29, a trainee social worker from Bristol. With her she had her 18- month-old baby, Bryony.

PanAm 103 took off from Heathrow at 18.25. As it was approaching the Burnham beacon it took a radar heading of 350 degrees and climbed to 31,000ft.

At 19.02 hrs and 50 seconds the bomb exploded in the hold. A complete wing structure attached to the centre section of the aircraft crashed on the southern edge of the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Large portions of the aircraft landed on farmland to the east of the town, and wreckage was scattered over 80 miles.

The impact was so strong that the British Geological Survey station in Edinburgh on the other side of Scotland recorded a seismic event measuring 1.6 on the Richter scale. The aircraft section that hit Lockerbie gouged a crater 155ft wide and 196ft long, and demolished 21 buildings in the worst-hit area, Sherwood Crescent. The mass of metal and fuel caused an inferno, killing 11 of the town's residents.

Later it would be claimed that seats on the flight were available so late because many American officials had cancelled their bookings after warnings of a terrorist attack on a US aircraft. It is said that the former South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, also cancelled.

There were some US government employees on the flight. Major Charles Dennis McKee and his intelligence team were flying back from Beirut. McKee, conspiracy theorists later said, had been targeted by Palestinian terrorists acting on behalf of Iran.

What is known is that an unaccompanied Samsonite suitcase containing a Toshiba cassette player full of Semtex was loaded on the aircraft. According to the US and British governments, the suitcase had been sent from Malta to Frankfurt and transferred on to the New York-bound 747.

The bomb was responsible for the deaths of 270 people.