Lockerbie: a name synonymous with death

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The Independent Online

For more than 12 years, the name of this small Scottish town, set amid lush green hills, has been synonymous with death and disaster.

For more than 12 years, the name of this small Scottish town, set amid lush green hills, has been synonymous with death and disaster.

It was 7:03 in the evening of December 21, 1988, that the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 rained down on Lockerbie, scattering mutilated bodies and flaming debris, killing 11 townspeople along with the 259 people aboard the doomed flight.

Now, Lockerbie marks another milestone in its long battle to put the disaster behind it - the expected verdict in the trial of two Libyan men accused of blowing up the plane.

The trial, held in a specially constructed high-security courthouse at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, capped the biggest murder investigation in British history. Prosecutors presented 180,000 pieces of evidence during 84 days of hearings, and 235 witnesses testified.

Some of the most gripping testimony came from the eyewitnesses of Lockerbie, who told the Scottish High Court justices of dodging chunks of burning metal plummeting down from the night sky.

Jasmine Bell, a 53-year-old social worker who was visiting her brother in a neighborhood where large parts of wreckage fell, recounted how the quiet street became an inferno. "Everything was burning," she testified.

The New York-bound flight was running late and should have already been over the Atlantic by the time the bomb went off, 38 minutes after it took off from London's Heathrow airport. Instead, it smashed to earth in and around Lockerbie.

The Boeing 747's cockpit section came down about five miles out of town, near a country church and graveyard. The fuselage hit the Rosebank neighbourhood on the northern edge of town. The wing section - laden with burning fuel - fell on a district called Sherwood.

In the wake of the catastrophe, Lockerbie's town hall and its ice rink were pressed into service as a temporary morgue. Searchers and investigators descended on the town to mount a massive search covering hundreds of square miles.

Prosecutors said the two suspects, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, rigged a radio with a small plastic high explosive and put it inside a suitcase that was later loaded aboard Pam Am 103. They pleaded innocent.

In the years since the disaster, Lockerbie has tried to move on. The 10th anniversary of the crash, in 1998, was commemorated with only a simple memorial service.

Although many in Lockerbie shun media interviews and are reluctant to talk about what happened, relatives of those killed in the crash were touched by the kindness of townspeople.

Volunteers worked for months to sort and launder clothing recovered from the wreckage and return it to relatives. Local people would also guide the bereaved to the spot where their loved one's body fell.