Lockerbie: a town finally at peace with its tragedy

20 years after terrorists struck at its heart, a community has resolved to move on, reports Jerome Taylor
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The Independent Online

In the hauntingly beautiful hamlet of Tundergarth, four miles east of the town of Lockerbie, there is a picturesque little cottage which houses a memorial book dedicated to those who died in Britain's worst air disaster.

Yesterday, one message stood out for its heartbreaking solemnity. It was dedicated to a brother and his wife, just two of those who died when Pan Am Flight 103 hurtled into the Dumfriesshire town 20 years ago yesterday, killing 11 people on the ground and all 259 people aboard.

"Hi Billy and Theresea,"it read. "Miss you like crazy. Twenty years on and not a day goes by you're not in my mind. Just back from New York, went to your favourite place: Hard Rock Cafe. The wee one can now say your name and knows she was coming to Lockerbie today. I wish so much you were here to see her. She loves to make people laugh like you did." Underneath was a drawing with the words: "Marissa, aged two and a half".

For two decades now, messages like this have appeared at Christmas around Lockerbie, a town that stands uncomfortably as a byword for terrorism and inexplicable tragedy.

Like Dunblane, Aberfan, Omagh and Hungerford, Lockerbie was a little-known but proud rural community thrust overnight into the international spotlight and overshadowed by the terrorist atrocity that befell it when a suitcase bomb exploded in the Pan Am plane's luggage hold. It has also been an emotional place of pilgrimage for relatives of those killed.

The anniversary yesterday was a moment for the 4,000 people who live here to tell the world that, as horrendous as the events of 21 December 1988 were, they have come to terms with what happened and want to move on.

Hundreds of tearful residents gathered to remember that moment at 7.03pm when the 747 jet exploded, sending earthwards a shower of molten metal, flaming fuel and humans.

"What the outside world does not understand is that the people of Lockerbie no longer have a fight to fight," said Marjory McQueen, a former councillor whose husband, Kenneth, a GP, spent days marking the bodies of the dead that littered the area.

She remembers all too well a plane wing obliterating houses in one part of town, and those who lived in them. But she says people have moved on. "Lockerbie recovered fairly quickly after the disaster. We were pretty much back on our feet 18 months later. But we know we will be forever associated with what happened here."

In the town itself there is little overt evidence of the crash. In Sherwood Crescent, where the fuel-laden wing and fuselage exploded in a searing fireball that vapourised three houses and all 11 of Lockerbie's victims, there lies a simple memorial garden. Otherwise the street is remarkably similar to what it looked like prior to 1988.

It was in nearby Tundergarth that the nose of the plane came down, narrowly missing the church and to land in a field. The image of the cockpit lying in a crater, like some giant mechanical beached whale, its name, "Maid of the Seas", still visible on its side, became the defining picture of the tragedy.

But that was then and this is now.

Mrs McQueen says there are now few families left in town who are directly related to those who died on the ground. Only the words of 11-year-old Luke Nesfield were heard yesterday.

Luke's father was Steven Flannigan, who was orphaned at age 14, along with his brother David, then 18, when their house in Sherwood Crescent was destroyed with their parents and sister inside. Unable to cope with the tragedy, David drank himself to death in Thailand and Steven died on a railway line.

Luke has inherited £6m in compensation from the Libyan government, whose security agent Ali al-Megrahi is imprisoned for causing the explosion.

The money is held in trust until he reaches adulthood. Yesterday, he said it meant little to him: "I would rather have my dad than all the money."

The anniversary ceremonies were carefully calculated to show how keen residents are to consign the events to the past. The last time the town held special commemorations was 10 years after the plane crashed. Politicians flocked to the area and messages were read on behalf of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

For yesterday's solemn wreath-laying commemoration on a windswept hill a mile to the west of Lockerbie, there were no official invitations, just locals and relatives of victims. The only official presence was from US consul Lisa Vickers and Lord Lieutenant Jean Tulloch, representing the Queen.

Addressing a tearful congregation of about 150, Canon Michael Bands said: "It is awful that we should gather today on this stormy sort of day to feel the sadness again of the tragedy that took place here 20 years ago."

His overriding message was to look to the future and not dwell on the past. "Nothing will ever change the pain, nothing will change those gut-wrenching experiences which followed this tragedy. But how we deal with them, and how we go on into the future history of this country depends so much on what we make of it all in our faith."

Later in the evening, private services were held at two local churches, Dryfesdale and Tundergarth, to mark the exact moment the 747 hit the town.

While Lockerbie has become a place of quiet reflection that would rather move on, elsewhere the debate rages over who carried out the terrorist attack and why. Many British relatives of those aboard the plane are the principal campaigners for an official inquiry, believing that the truth, like Megrahi, the only person convicted over the bombing, remains locked up.

Pamela Dix, whose brother Peter was on the flight, said a lot of relatives of the flight victims felt differently from people in Lockerbie.

"Early on there were some Lockerbie residents who vocalised the idea that we must get to the bottom of what happened but that sentiment seems to have disappeared now," she said.

"All I know is that 20 years on we have just one man in prison who has been granted leave to appeal next year over his sentence and more unanswered questions than ever."