A horrific picture of the helicopter disaster in which many of Northern Ireland's leading anti-terrorist experts from the army, police and intelligence services died emerged yesterday when the official inquiry into the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre opened.
Relatives of the 29 people who died in the disaster wept as eyewitnesses described the moment when the Chinook ploughed into a 1,400ft mountain in thick fog on the evening of 2 June 1994.
Local people and emergency workers who witnessed the disaster gave evidence at the fatal-accident inquiry at Paisley Sheriff Court, Strathclyde.
David Murchie, the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse-keeper, who was the first person on the scene, described how a fierce fireball erupted when the twin- rotor aircraft struck the mountain, burning bodies and blackening the heather-clad slopes.
Charred human remains and smouldering aircraft debris littered the south face of Beinn na Lice, on the tip of the peninsula.
Mr Murchie, a 56-year-old former trainee pilot and amateur helicopter enthusiast, is the only person who heard the aircraft approaching the Scottish coast on its flight from Belfast to Inverness.
He told the court that the American-made aircraft was flying normally, at cruising speed and showed no signs of distress. The Chinook was "not slowing down, speeding up, gaining height [or] altering course", he said. "There was no change in engine noise whatsoever . . . There was nothing abnormal that I could detect."
After the helicopter passed over the lighthouse, he said, "I heard a dull thud, followed by a whooshing . . . then silence. I knew immediately what had happened. I knew the helicopter had crashed".
He described how he rushed to the scene, frantically moving from body to body trying to revive the victims. But the four-strong crew, as well as the nine army intelligence officers, six MI5 officers and 10 members of the RUC Special Branch, were already dead.
The court was told that all the men, who been travelling from Belfast to Fort George, near Inverness, for a top-secret security conference, died instantly.
Dr Marjorie Black, a forensic pathologist, said they suffered massive multiple injuries, including skull fractures and broken backs. Some were so badly burned that dental records were used for identification.
The inquiry is the first public and detailed investigation of the tragedy. An internal Ministry of Defence investigation last year blamed the pilots for flying in over the mainland without warning at high speed.
Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper and his co-pilot, Flt Lt Richard Cook, were "grossly negligent" when they flew through "a dense wall of cloud" near the Scottish coast, the MoD found.
But lawyers representing the two men and relatives of the other victims will challenge the finding.
They will present evidence that RAF investigators uncovered safety problems with Chinook helicopters, including engine "flame-outs" and computer faults, just weeks before the crash.
After the inquiry, relatives of the victims are likely to receive compensation payments totalling pounds 6m.