Twenty five years have passed. Twenty five years, but it still feels raw to the residents of the tiny Scottish town, which became known all over the world for the most horrible reason. The Lockerbie bombing. Twenty five years of grief too for the family and friends of those who were lost that day when an aeroplane, Pan Am flight 103, combusted and fell to earth, killing all on board. It was the worst ever terrorist attack on British soil, the most shocking, most atrocious. Two hundred and seventy people died as they were headed home for Christmas. It was mass murder. Until 9/11 it was also the biggest loss of American lives in a terrorist attack.
On the plane, the passengers were only half an hour into their flight to New York, just settling in and looking forward to the meal being served and a movie. The explosion happened as the clock was about to turn to 7pm, 31,000 feet above the small market town. Lockerbie folk were snug at home in front of their TV sets or having dinner, when hell broke out high above their heads. Eleven of them were victims as the wreckage descended. On impact, there was an enormous fireball which left a gigantic crater in the ground.
The full scale of the loss was felt at the trial when all the names of the dead were read out in a solemn roll call which took over an hour. Relatives listened from the public gallery in tears as the name of their loved one was intoned. Those emotions will be brought to the surface today, said Canon Patrick Keegans, the parish priest in Lockerbie in December 1988. This particular anniversary, he said will “make us remember the devastation and horror that all of us experienced 25 years ago.”
Commemoration ceremonies will be held today on both sides of the Atlantic, British Prime Minister David Cameron has sent strong words of resilience. His address will be read at the Arlington National Cemetery close to Washington DC. Other major events will be held at Westminster Abbey and at Syracuse University, which lost 35 of its students to the bomb. First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, will lead the mourners at Dryfesdale cemetery in Lockerbie. Like many, he said that the memory of the horror was “still sharp.”
“As the country prepares once more to relive the harrowing events of that terrible night” said Salmond, “it is important that we remember that the pain and suffering of the families and friends who died has endured since that winter night in 1988.”
David Cameron’s speech will talk of his “unconditional admiration” for those bereaved. He will praise their “determination never to give up” and their proof that “terrorism cannot crush the human spirit.” That, he will conclude “is why terrorism will never prevail.” His words are to be recited by Scotland Office Minister David Mundell.
Mundell will be in Arlington, standing beside a Scottish cairn. This pile of red sandstones, quarried from Dumfriesshire is assembled from 270 blocks, one for every life lost. The wreath he lays will carry the Gaelic message “Always remembered. Never forgotten. Forever in our hearts.” US Attorney General Eric Holder and other US officials will also speak at Arlington.
Lorna Hood is the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. She spoke of the days after the bombing, when the search went on amidst the appalling debris and the devastated township, and the grieving relatives, tried to come to terms with the scale of the catastrophe. All those who were there at that time, she said, will “live with the difficult memories.” She went on to mention that there are still numerous unanswered questions but the anniversary was not the appropriate time to raise them. Instead, it was better to “pray for a world where we can live together in peace ” and to travel “in confidence and safety” all the while, “appreciating our differences but rejoicing in all that unites us as human beings.”
Fourteen babies and young children were among those who were killed as the Boeing 747 was ripped apart in the sky. Two of the babies were just two months old. Some of the bodies were never found. The passengers comprised of people from 21 different countries, but the majority were Americans. There were 16 crew members. The oldest passenger was a 79-year-old retired doctor from Hungary.
Abdelbaset al Megrahi was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 2001. He remains to this day the only person ever convicted. After being given a life sentence, he was controversially released from prison on compassionate grounds, as he was suffering from terminal cancer. The decision to free him and allow him to return to Libya stirred a great deal of dissent and unease, especially as he then took many months to die. He finally died in May 2012 in Tripoli.
However, many relatives remain unconvinced of Megrahi’s guilt, as do his own family, who intend to apply for an appeal. Oliver Miles, the former British Ambassador in Libya, suspects the truth may never be known. If there was a mastermind behind it, he thinks, it had to have been Gaddafi.
Twenty five years have passed but the pain persists. The horrors of Lockerbie will be remembered today and the great sorrow of the families and friends will be shared by the world.
By Kate Henderson