It has been two decades since an act of terror in the skies over Great Britain. All this week Bill Carey is bringing us the story of Pan Am 103. In this report from Lockerbie, the story of the night a bomb ended 270 lives.
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The Long Thunder
SCOTLAND -- “We were prepared for Christmas. We had decorations up. We were delivering postcards to friends and relatives. We had the tree up, as well, with lights. Looking forward to Christmas,” said Maxwell Kerr of Lockerbie.
“Opening Christmas cards. Phoning friends. Deciding what we were going to be doing at Christmas. It was a fairly normal 21st of December. Four days before Christmas in a normal market town in the south of Scotland,” said Lockerbie resident Marjory McQueen.
December 21st, 1988. Lockerbie, Scotland is settling in for a quiet winter's night. However, life here was about to change dramatically. And you could mark the time of that change. 7:03 p.m.
At 31,000 feet in the air, Pan Am 103 is crossing the Scottish border, contacting air traffic controllers for clearance to cross the Atlantic. All seems normal until the radar screens show what was flight 103 disintegrating in the sky.
“My daughter said, ‘What's that noise?" And I said, ‘Oh, it sounds like thunder,’” said McQueen “When thunder rolls in and then rolls out again, this didn't roll out again. It just kept getting louder and louder and louder.”
“A noise like peels of thunder. But, instead of diminishing, they got louder and they ran together,” said John Gair, who lives in Lockerbie.
“A shadow crossed my house. And, about a couple of seconds later, there was a most huge, not a bang, not an explosion, but a crump sound. Just something, crump. And then there were flames and debris hundreds of feet up into the air,” said McQueen.
“When I opened the front door, the sky was just a golden color-like. And this was the flames from the wings from that aircraft flying across the roofs of Rosebank, Park Place,” Kerr said.
“It didn't take long from the sky turning orange to the sky turning blue. Ambulances. Fire engines. In a very short time, it seemed the town was absolutely filled with blue lights,” McQueen said.
Damage was everywhere and, as the people of Lockerbie ventured out of their homes, they found death was everywhere too.
“At that time, you were either very much alive or very much dead. There was very little in between,” McQueen recalled.
The news was spreading across an ocean.
“I’m not much of a television watcher, but, for whatever reason, I turned the television on. And they were showing the flames of the town. And, they gave some information about where the plane was leaving from and where it was heading to. Well, London to New York. There's lots of planes that are London to New York. They mentioned the airline and that's when I realized this might be them,” said Martha Boyer, a sister of one of the victims of flight 103.
In Albany, Paul Hudson, already dealing with a change in his daughter Melina's travel plans, gets a call from his travel agent.
“Saying that something bad had happened at Lockerbie and I should go to the tube. And, I went home and turned on the television and the flames of Lockerbie were on CNN,” said Hudson.
Peggy Hunt, at home in Webster, near Rochester, has confirmed the flight down is Pan Am 103.
Her husband is still unaware.
“I was just coming back from a business trip and I landed at the Rochester airport and there was a page saying, ‘Robert Hunt, please report to United Baggage. Robert Hunt.’ And, there was a message to call home. Emergency,” Hunt said. “I called her and her only words were, ‘Hurry up and get home. I think Karen's plane crashed.’”
Families of many of the victims began making their way to Kennedy Airport in New York the place that was to have been the scene of happy homecomings.
“You went there because you really didn't know what else to do. Not that you could do anything, but you knew that something had happened and you weren’t going to Scotland,” said Daniel Cohen.
Jeanine Boulanger arrived at JFK from her home in Massachusetts. She found chaos awaiting her at the Pan Am terminal.
“We approached an attendant and asked what was going on. They told us that they believed a plane had gone down over Scotland. And I looked up and where it said Pan Am 103, it said, see attendant. And that's when they said Pan Am 103,” said Boulanger. “I remember only being on the floor and looking up and seeing all kinds of faces and lights. And I remember my husband leaning over me. And I don't think he grasped, at that moment, what had happened.”
At Syracuse University, the word from overseas is shattering. At least 35 students in the overseas study program are on the doomed flight.
“This is the saddest day of my life. We've lost a part of the brightest and the best,” said then Syracuse University Chancellor Melvin Eggars.
Hours after an explosion in the skies over Scotland, the world is coming to grips with a tragedy and the darkest turn is yet to come.
“You try to go to bed. You try to go to sleep. You can't sleep. Just staring at the ceiling, thinking. How does something like this happen to us? This is just something you see on TV. This is always somebody else,” said Hunt.