December 21, 2012 marks the 24th anniversary of Pan Am 103

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Oct 24, 2000
What follows are the accounts of one former Pan Am employee and accident investigator:

I cannot believe that it has been twenty years since the bombing and downing of Pan American World Airways Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

I have been asked many times to put down in writing the happenings that I had seen the day of the bombing and the days afterwards of Pan American World Airways Flight 103. Pan American World Airways was my first and only airline to work for. I had joined Pan American World Airways in spring of 1987 until the cease of operations on December 4, 1991.

I was looking forward to making Pan American World Airways my airline and my first real job since college. I was excited about using my learning’s in Media Relations. Pan American World Airways was the “airline” of its time in the 80’s. It was the prestige that brought many young people to come work for the then prominent airline. Known world wide as the premier travel icon, Pan American World Airways represented a way of travel long since forgotten; a time when the journey was anticipated and savored as much as the destination.

I had been at the Pan American World Airways office, located in NYC, with my then bosses Steven Paul and Jeff Kriendler on that fateful Wednesday day of December 21, 1988. It was the holidays and many of my co-workers had taken a few days off for Christmas. There was a skeleton crew working the PR Office that day when we received word of the crash of Pan American World Airways Flight 103.

Pan American World Airways Flight 103 began as a feeder flight from Frankfurt International Airport that day as a 727. Pan American World Airways Flight 103A, from Frankfurt International Airport, brought forty-seven of the 89 passengers on the Boeing 727, where they were transferred to Pan American World Airways 103’s transatlantic flight from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK.
Pan Am Flight 103 was Pan American World Airways' third daily scheduled transatlantic flight from London's Heathrow International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

There were 243 passengers and 16 crew members on board the Boeing 747-121, N739PA, led by Captain James Bruce "Jim" MacQuarrie, First Officer Raymond Ronald "Ray" Wagner, and Flight Engineer Jerry Don Avritt. Mary Murphy served as the head purser. The flight was scheduled to depart at 18:00, and pushed back from the gate at 18:04. Due to a rush-hour delay, Pan American World Airays 103 took off from runway 27L at 18:25, flying northwest out of Heathrow. Once clear of Heathrow, the crew steered due north toward Scotland. At 18:56, as the aircraft approached the border, it reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet.

At 19:00, Pan American World Airways Flight 103 was picked up by the Scottish Area Control Center at Prestwick, Scotland, where it needed clearance to begin its flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The aircraft appeared as a small green square with a cross at its center showing its transponder code 0357 310 68546.9. The code gave information about the time and height of the plane: the last code for the Clipper showed it was flying at 31,000 ft. Captain MacQuarrie stated to Prestwick: "Good evening Scottish, Clipper one zero three. We are at level three one zero." Then First Officer Wagner spoke: "Clipper 103 requesting oceanic clearance."

Those were the last words heard from the aircraft.

At 19:01, Pan American World Airways Flight 103 approached the corner of the Solway Firth, and at 19:02, it crossed its northern coast. When the airliner's transponder stopped replying, it was flying at 31,000 feet on a heading of 316 degrees magnetic, and at a speed of 313 knots, at 19:02:46.9.

At that moment, the plane's code and the cross in the middle of the square disappeared. At first, it was believed the flight had entered a so-called zone of silence: dead space where objects are invisible to radar.

In reality, Pan American World Airways Flight 103 ceased to exist.
At that moment, contact with the aircraft was lost. Scottish Area Control Center tried to make contact with Captain MacQuarrie, and asked a nearby KLM flight to do the same, but there was no reply. The KLM pilot reported a flash that they had seen just moments ago, but thought it was a meteor. Where there should have been one radar return on the Scottish Area Control Center screen, there were four, and as the seconds passed, the returns began to fan out. Comparison of the cockpit voice recorder with the radar returns showed that eight seconds after the explosion, wreckage had a 1-nautical-mile spread, showing millions of fragmented signatures.

Wreckage was strewn over 50 square miles near Lockerbie, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

I was just getting ready for lunch when my boss entered into the fishbowl; we call the area fishbowl as we were encircled by glass walls, and told us that Pan Am 103 had gone down. “Reports state that Scottish ACC lost contact with the aircraft some 20 minutes ago.”

We began pulling information on the flight from its departure to arrival city. I was assigned getting crew and passenger lists, aircraft type and length of flight. My partner, Byron, and I took the next hour to gather all essential information and met Steven in the debriefing room. We presented all our information to him including maintenance records for the 747, and any information on the pilots. Our boss stated that it was a normal flight and that the last made contact was between Captain and First Officer with Scottish Area Control Center. We prepared the “war packet”, what Pan Am called the media preparation for the press. We headed to JFK.

Our media release was to the point with flight information, the route of the 747, and that maintenance records were being reviewed at this time. Crew and passenger names were not released. Though, families that lived in New York were beginning to arrive at JFK. Ticket counters were clustered with families asking what news the airline had. We stated to the Press, and the families, that at this time, Pan American World Airways had no further information to pass along.

After the announcement to the media about the downing of Pan Am 103, the three of us caught a Pan Am flight to Scotland and set up Media Relations.

Once we arrived at Lockerbie, the scene was mind boggling for me as I had never seen a plane crash site, and I hope never to again. The small village of Lockerbie, where the main fuselage impacted, was found to have destroyed several houses with a large crater carved in the earth.

We were met by the investigators of UK’s Air Accident Investigation Branch, AAIB and were told that members from the FAA were going to be arriving shortly. I was Steven’s right hand man on that trip and he and I surveyed the area documenting the destruction that was once Pan Am 103.

Bodies were everywhere; in trees, impacted deep in earth soil, bits and pieces here and there. We asked where the rest of the aircraft was and if any major parts of the aircraft were available. The police told us that the nose section lay in a field, by a tiny church in the village of Tundergarth, some 3 miles short of the main wreckage.

The cockpit section of the aircraft was flattened and lay impacted, crushed on the left side. The cockpit nose looked like that of a 747, but it was not the same shape as I was accustomed too. Too me, it appeared like a fishes head cut from its body.

We walked around the nose section that once was the Clipper Maid of the Seas. Immediately we found that the flight crew were still strapped in their seats. The arms of the First Officer dangled to the left towards towards the Captain and the Flight Engineer was slumped with his head back. The Captain was pressed against the left side of the cockpit – his hands still gripped the control stick (we would later find out that it is believed the Captain was alive in the free fall as “…that distinctive marks on Captain MacQuarrie's thumb suggested he had been hanging onto the yoke of the plane as it descended.”

We were able to see many first class passengers still strapped in their seats and that one Flight Attendant, Mary Murphy, was still buckled in her seat. We were told by an AAIB Officer who had heard Mary Murphy was alive when found by a farmer's wife, but died before her rescuer could summon help … which led us to believe that most of the crew and passengers were alive in the 31,000 foot vertical plummet to the ground.

We had been told that Paul Avron Jeffreys, former bass player with the UK group Cockney Rebel, was on the flight with his new wife Rachel, en route to their honeymoon celebration, and that they were still in their seats and would be covered up with yellow bags soon. Also on-board was poetess Joanna Walton.

We documented the scene as best we could, most photos you can see on the Internet are from our investigation. We then headed back to Lockerbie to meet with other airline executives and the FAA. Media had descended upon Lockerbie. The nightmare had taken life and the world was about to be introduced to a new world of terrorism.

On the ground, 11 Lockerbie residents were killed when the wing section hit 13 Sherwood Crescent at more than 500 mph and exploded, creating a crater 155 ft long and vaporizing several houses and their foundations, and damaging 21 others so badly they had to be demolished. Four members of one family, Jack and Rosalind Somerville and their children Paul and Lynsey, died when their house at 15 Sherwood Crescent exploded. A fireball rose above the houses and moved toward the nearby main road, scorching cars in the southbound lanes.

A few villagers began to tell us what they had seen the night 103 fell from the sky. “It was like meteors falling from the sky,” described one resident. “The sky lit up and a large, deafening roar echoed around us.”

They soon saw pieces of the plane as well as pieces of bodies landing in fields, in backyards, on fences, and on rooftops. Fuel from the plane was already on fire before it hit the ground; some of it landed on houses, making the houses explode.

We met one villager, a 14 year old boy named Steven Flannigan, who, four days away from Christmas, had slipped from his house to his friends across the street, to assemble the new bike he was going to surprise his sister with. A loud crack was heard and he headed out to see what it could have been, he told us and the AAIB, and then suddenly he was thrown back into the garage as one engine, still attached to the wing, and still at throtle, impacted the house he used to live in … evaporating the house instantly and killing his parents Katherine and Thomas Flannigan and his sister Joanne – to whom the bike was for.

Staging for Media Relations was set up at Lockerbie Manor Hotel where we and several other Pan Am employees were put up for the time being. The hotel was nice enough to grant us privacy while we were there and did not allow media nor family and towns folk access to us while we were there.

It was very stressful the first few days that we were there. This was all new for me as for Steven and Byron both had been with Pan American World Airways for some 15-20 years, respectively.

Steven had worked two other well-known accidents such as the Tenerife accident that involved a Pan Am and KLM 747 where a total of 583 people were killed, 335 of them from the Pan Am 747. Steven was a veteran and was well respcted at Pan Am for his knwledge of crews, management, aircraft, hubs, airports and our routes of service.

Steven was the one too hire me. Seeing potential in a young man that had aviation in his blood, the belief in the airline and the want to learn and travel … he hesitated not once after interviewing to offer me the position.

Byron had been a former flight attendant with Western Airlines. He was my best friend there at the airline (later another friend would be Russell who would leave Pan Am and fly with American Airlines).

The first day we arrived at the site of the crash we had taken many photos and notes. My hands were tired from the writing and I had gone through several film canisters. I was thankful later when the airline would send me more film.

After we had dinner, we set up the ground rules on who would do what and what each was responsible for. Tammy would arrive a day later from Miami, FL, and she would be the go between for the airline and families a few days after.

For many days, Lockerbie residents lived with the sight of bodies lying where they died. Forensic investigators from AAIB and the FAA photographed and tagged the location of each body to help determine the exact position and force of the on-board explosion, by coordinating information about each passenger's assigned seat, type of injury, and where they had landed. One local resident stated: "A boy was lying at the bottom of the steps on to the road. A young laddie with brown socks and blue trousers on. Later that evening my son-in-law asked for a blanket to cover him. I didn't know he was dead. I gave him a lamb's wool traveling rug thinking I'd keep him warm. Two more girls were lying dead across the road, one of them bent over garden railings. It was just as though they were sleeping. The boy lay at the bottom of my stairs for days. Every time I came back to my house for clothes he was still there. 'My boy is still there,' I used to tell the waiting policeman. Eventually on Saturday I couldn't take it no more. 'You got to get my boy lifted,' I told the policeman. That night he was moved."

My boss and I were told to try and keep the media from the locals and not to allow them full access to the many of the critical and sensitive areas. Once was the cockpit, the FAA were crawling throughout the scene looking for clues.

I remember one day as I was with one team of AAIB Officers, we came across a woman running towards us waving a white cloth. As she approached she told us out of breath that she had a woman in her farmland. We went with this woman and found that there indeed was a woman lying some 2 feet down in the ground – the impact had caused her to sink into the soft soil. Investigators tagged her body and a few days later we found out that she was a few months pregnant.

A few days later the worse day of my time there at Lockerbie, was when families of the victims started to show up. Despite being advised by their government not to travel to Lockerbie, many of the passengers' relatives, most of them from the U.S., arrived to identify their loved ones.

Volunteers from Lockerbie manned canteens, and many of locals, who were shocked by the travesty and wanting to help out the families who had lost their loved ones, washed, dried, and ironed every piece of clothing that was found; once the police had determined they were of no forensic value. I had seen with my own eyes locals opening their homes and hearts to the relatives.
We had learned a few days later that a warning had come down from Helsinki, now known as the Helsinki warning. On December 5, 1988 the Federal Aviation Administration issued a security bulletin saying that on that day a man with an Arabic accent had telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, Finland, and had told them that a Pan American World Airways flight from Frankfurt to the United States would be blown up within the next two weeks by someone associated with the Abu Nidal Organization. He said a Finnish woman would carry the bomb on board as an unwitting courier.

The anonymous warning was taken seriously by the U.S. government. The State Department cabled the bulletin to dozens of embassies. The FAA sent it to all U.S. carriers, including Pan American World Airways, which had charged each of the passengers a five-dollar security surcharge, promising a "program that will screen passengers, employees, airport facilities, baggage and aircraft with unrelenting thoroughness". Later we would find out that the security team in Frankfurt found the warning hidden under a pile of papers on a desk the day after the bombing. This angered both the airline and the families.

After two weeks at Lockerbie my boss and I were the last too leave for the airline. We set down in JFK totally changed for life. I had never seen a crash scene as horrific as Pan American World Airways Flight 103. Still to this day I can see the bodies of the flight crew in their seats … the bodies of passengers in trees, gardens, rooftops, limbs all over the area. It was like a war zone for me.

Until September 11, 2001, the bombing of Pan American World Airways Flight 103 was the deadliest terrorist attack against the United States, an explosion that tore through a cargo container aboard the Pan American World Airways jumbo jet, remains the largest terrorist attack on British soil to this day. Totaling 270 fatalities, including 11 in the town of Lockerbie, they came from 21 nations. 180 of the victims were US citizens.

The Investigation into the downing of Pan American World Airways Flight 103 showed to have been a bomb that brought down the flight.

After investigators had interviewed over 15,000 people, examined 180,000 pieces of evidence, and researched in more than 40 countries, there is some understanding as to what blew up Pan Am Flight 103.

The bomb was made out of the plastic explosive Semtex and was activated by a timer. The bomb was hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player, which in turn, was inside a brown Samsonite suitcase. But the real problem for investigators has been who put the bomb in the suitcase and how did the bomb get on the plane?

The investigators believe they received a "big break" when a man and his dog were walking in a forest about 80 miles from Lockerbie. While walking, the man found a T-shirt, which turned out to have pieces of the timer in it. Tracing the T-shirt as well as the maker of the timer, investigators felt confident they knew who bombed Flight 103 - Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah.

The investigators report showed that the explosion punched a 20-inch wide hole, almost directly under the P in Pan Am, on the left side of the fuselage. The disintegration of the aircraft was rapid. Investigators concluded that the nose of the aircraft separated from the main section within three seconds of the explosion.

The flight data recorder, a bright orange-colored recording device located in the tail section of the aircraft, was found in a field by police searchers within 24 hours of the bombing. There was no evidence of a distress call: a 180 millisecond hissing noise could be heard as the explosion destroyed the aircraft's communications center.

After being lowered into the cockpit in Lockerbie before it was moved, and while the bodies of the flight crew were still inside it, investigators from the FAA concluded that no emergency procedures had been started. The pressure control and fuel switches were both set for cruise, and the crew had not used their oxygen masks, which would have descended within five seconds of a rapid depressurization of the airplane.

The nerve center of a 747, from which all the navigation and communication systems are controlled sits two floors below the cockpit, separated from the forward cargo hold only by a bulkhead wall. Investigators concluded that the force of the explosion broke through this wall and shook the flight-control cables, causing the front section of the fuselage to begin to roll, pitch, and yaw.

These violent movements snapped the reinforcing belt that secured the front section to the row of windows on the left side and it began to break away. At the same time, shock waves from the blast ricocheted back from the fuselage skin in the direction of the bomb; meeting pulses still coming from the initial explosion.

This produced Mach stem shock waves; a Mach wave is a pressure wave traveling with the speed of sound caused by a slight change of pressure added to a compressible flow. These weak waves can combine in supersonic flow to become a shock wave if sufficient Mach waves are present at any location. These shock waves rebounded from one side of the aircraft to the other, running down the length of the fuselage through the air-conditioning ducts and splitting the fuselage open. A section of the 747's roof several feet above the point of detonation peeled away.

The Mach stem waves pulsing through the duct work: bounced off overhead luggage racks and other hard surfaces, jolting the passengers.

The power of the explosion was enhanced by the difference in air pressure between the inside of the aircraft, where it was kept at breathable levels, and outside, where it was about a quarter of what it is at sea level. The nose of the aircraft, containing the crew and the first class section, broke away, striking the number 3 Pratt & Whitney engine as it snapped off. When the cockpit broke off, tornado-force winds would have torn through the fuselage, tearing clothes off passengers and turning objects like drink carts into lethal pieces of shrapnel.

Investigators believe that within three seconds of the explosion, the cockpit, fuselage, and No. 3 engine were falling separately. The fuselage continued moving forward and down until it reached 19,000 ft, at which point its dive became almost vertical.

As it descended, the fuselage broke into smaller pieces, with the section attached to the wings landing first in Sherwood Crescent, where the aviation fuel inside the wings ignited, causing a fireball that destroyed several houses, and which was so intense that nothing remained of the left wing of the aircraft. Investigators were able to determine that both wings had landed in the crater only after counting the number of large, steel flapjack screws that were found there.

Because of the sudden change in air pressure, the gases inside the passengers would have expanded to four times their normal volume, causing their lungs to swell and then collapse. People and objects not fixed down would have been blown out of the aircraft at an air temperature of minus 50 degrees F, their six-mile fall lasting about two minutes. Some passengers remained attached to the fuselage by their seat belts, landing in Lockerbie strapped to their seats.

Although they would have lost consciousness because of the lack of oxygen, forensic examiners believe some of the passenger’s regained consciousness as they fell toward the oxygen-rich lower altitudes. A forensic pathologist, who examined the autopsy evidence, told Scottish police he believed the flight crew, some of the flight attendants, and 147 other passengers survived the bomb blast and depressurization of the aircraft, and may have been alive on impact. None of these passengers showed signs of injury from the explosion itself, or from the decompression and disintegration of the aircraft. The inquest heard that a mother was found holding her baby; two friends were holding hands; and a number of passengers were found clutching crucifixes.

The cockpit voice recorder tape was listened to for its full duration and there was no indication of anything abnormal with the aircraft, or unusual crew behavior. The tape record ended, at 19.02:50 hrs +/- 1 second, with a sudden loud sound on the cockpit area microphone channel followed almost immediately by the cessation of recording while the crew was copying their transatlantic clearance.

In December of 1991, Pan American World Airways ceased operations. Though the airline was gone, personnel from the airline, like myself, have kept the people of Pan Am Flight 103 in our hearts.

Years since many of the villagers have spoken or wrote about the night that Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie. Some recite with vivid clarity of "…a fire falling down from the sky" and "everything was burning - the driveway, the lawn, the hedges, the rooftops. Bodies were everywhere. People of all ages lay strewn upon the earth."

11 years later, the two men whom investigators believe are the bombers were in Libya. The United States and the United Kingdom wanted the men tried in an American or British court, but Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi refused to extradite them.
The U.S. and the U.K. were angry that Qaddafi would not turn over the wanted men, so they approached the United Nation's Security Council for help. To pressure Libya into turning over the two men, the Security Council imposed sanctions over Libya. Though hurting financially from the sanctions, Libya continually refused to turn over the men.

In 1994, Libya agreed to a proposal that would have the trial held in a neutral country with international judges. The U.S. and the U.K. refused the proposal.

In 1998, the U.S. and the U.K. offered a similar proposal but with Scottish judges rather than international ones. Libya accepted the new proposal in April 1999.

Though the investigators were once confident that these two men were the bombers, there proved to be many holes in the evidence.

On January 31, 2001, Megrahi was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fhimah was acquitted.

On May 29, 2002 Libya offered $2.7 billion to settle claims by the families of the 270 killed in the Pan Am 103 bombing, representing $10 million per family. The Libyan offer meant that 40% of the money would be released when United Nations sanctions were lifted, another 40% when US trade sanctions were lifted, and the final 20% when the US State Department removed Libya from its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

Two reasons made Pan American World Airways Flight 103 notable:

For the United States, the bombing was significant because it killed 189 civilians, more American civilians than any other attack, until 9/11.

The use of plastics explosives was an innovation in terrorist tactics that circumvented metal detectors, and led to a number of new procedures to make airline travel more terrorist proof.

Here now, some twenty years later, I still pay homage to the crew, passengers and villagers of Lockerbie that lost their lives on the 21st of December 1988. As then and now, I pray for your souls that your death was quick, and that the hole that was left behind for your families to bare, reminds them of the happy times and not the solemn day of innocence lost.

Oct 25, 2006
Reading about airplane disasters are insane. Airplanes are damn resilient and stable and takes a decent bit to bring one down in a bad way
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