On this day: Lockerbie tragedy

23 years ago, 270 people died when Pam Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The victims of the terrorist bombing will be remembered during an annual ceremony at the Lockerbie Cairn in Arlington National Cemetery.

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 heading from London’s Heathrow International Airport to New York Kennedy International Airport exploded en route over Lockerbie, Scotland. The flight originated in Frankfurt, Germany, which was where explosives – packed into passenger luggage – were placed onto the flight after being ferried to Frankfurt on a flight from Malta

The plastic explosive was placed inside a portable radio/cassette player, and packed in a regular suitcase. It has never been determined how the luggage made it onto the aircraft. The explosives were triggered when the barometric pressure inside the luggage hold fell beneath a certain level during the first leg of the Pan Am flight, which began inFrankfurt.

All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed. Eleven residents of Lockerbie also died. Of the total of 270 fatalities, 189 were American citizens and 43 British citizens. No more than 4 of the remaining 37 victims of the bombing came from any one of the 19 other countries.


On the ground, 11 Lockerbie residents were killed when the wing section hit13 Sherwood Crescentat more than 800 km/h (500 mph) and exploded, creating a crater 47 m (154 ft) long and with a volume of 560 m3, vaporising the house and its occupants, Dora and Maurice Henry. Several other houses and their foundations were completely destroyed, and 21 others were damaged so badly they had to be demolished. Four members of one family, Jack and Rosalind Somerville and their children Paul, 13, and Lynsey, 10, died when their house at15 Sherwood Crescent exploded.

Volunteers from Lockerbie set up and manned canteens, which stayed open 24 hours a day, where relatives, soldiers, police officers and social workers could find free sandwiches, hot meals, coffee, and someone to talk to. The people of the town washed, dried, and ironed every piece of clothing that was found once the police had determined they were of no forensic value, so that as many items as possible could be returned to the relatives.


Kathleen Flannigan, age 41, Thomas Flannigan, 44, and their daughter Joanne, 10, were killed by the explosion in their house16 Sherwood Crescent. Their son Steven, 14, saw the fireball engulf his home from a neighbour’s garage where he had gone to repair his sister’s bicycle.

A number of different stories about why the Lockerbie bombings happened and who was behind them have been put forth. Although trial concluded with the conviction of the two Libyan suspects in 2003, the question of what happened continues to be discussed. In all of the explanations, however, the terrorist attack is understood to be one event in a series of responsive acts of violence between non-state or state-sponsored terrorist groups and theUnited States in the 1980s.