Lockerbie: Town remembers day terror rained from skies
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 afternoon, one message stood out for its heartbreaking solemnity. Left by an anonymous sister, it was dedicated to her brother and his wife, just two of those who died when Pan Am Flight 103 hurtled into the Scottish borders town 20 years ago yesterday, killing 11 people on the ground and all 259 aboard.
“Hi Billy and Theresea,” the message read. “Miss you like crazy. 20 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 of the niece's hand next to 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 which was thrust overnight into the international spotlight, overshadowed by the terrorist atrocity that befell it when a suitcase bomb exploded in the craft's luggage hold.
It has also been a deeply emotional place of pilgrimage for relatives of those 270 people.
But yesterday's anniversary was a moment for these 4,000 Scottish border townsfolk 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.
Under the stormy skies of a cold Scottish winter, tearful residents came in their hundreds to a series of deliberately “low key” events to remember the moment at 7.03pm that a packed 747 jet exploded overhead, 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 was the local GP at the time of the disaster and spent days marking the bodies of the dead that littered the area.
She remembers all too well the plane's wing smashing into one area of the town, obliterating those inside their houses, but insists people have long moved on.
“The town of Lockerbie recovered fairly quickly after the disaster,” she said, “I'd say we were pretty much back on our feet 18 months afterwards. But we know we will be forever associated with what happened here.”
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
In Lockerbie itself there is a little overt evidence of the plane crash. In Sherwood Crescent, where the fuel-laden wing and fuselage exploded in a searing fireball that vaporised three houses and all eleven 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 hitting a farmer's field.
The image of the cockpit lying on its side in a crater like some giant mechanical beached whale — its name, “Maid of the Seas”, still clearly visible on its side — became the defining picture of the tragedy.
But that was then and this is now.
According to Mrs McQueen, there are now very few families left in the 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 was the son of Steven Flannigan, who was orphaned at age 14 along with his brother David, then 18, when their house in Sherwood Crescent was destroyed while their parents and sister were inside.
Unable to cope with the tragedy, David drank himself to death in Thailand and Steven later died on a railway line. Luke has since inherited £6m compensation money from the Libyan government, whose security agent Ali al-Megrahi remains imprisoned for causing the explosion.
The money is held in a trust fund until adulthood.
Yesterday, Luke said the money meant little to him: “It's not that great that when I get older I'll get all the money. I would rather have my dad than all the money.”
The style of the 20th-anniversary ceremonies was carefully calculated to show just how keen residents are to consign the terrible events to the past.
The last time the town held special commemorations was 10 years after the plane crashed into the town. Scores of politicians flocked to the area and messages were read out on behalf of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
But 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 those who died grieving as one community, accompanied by a mournful piper from the town school.
The only official presence was from US Consul Lisa Vickers and Lord Lieutenant Jean Tulloch, representing the Queen.
Addressing a tearful congregation of approximately 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.”
But his overriding message was to look towards 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,” he said. “But how we deal with them, and how we go on in to the future history of this country depends so much 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.
Whilst Lockerbie has become a place of quiet reflection that would rather move on, elsewhere the debate rages over who carried out the attack, and why.
Many British relatives of those aboard the plane are the principle campaigners in favour of an official inquiry, believing that the truth, like the only person convicted over the bombing, Libyan national Ali al-Megrahi, remains locked up.
Pamela Dix, whose brother Stephen was on Flight 103 because he had changed to a later journey to accompany a colleague, said yesterday that a lot of relatives of the flight victims felt very differently from those within 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.”