Wednesday, December 21st, is the winter solstice and either the shortest or longest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. It also marks the 28th anniversary of one of the most notorious terrorist bombings, the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of Seas, was bound from London to New York, when it blew up in the evening sky about a half-hour after takeoff. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, along with eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, where an entire neighborhood was virtually demolished. Debris was scattered for miles. Until 2001, this was the deadliest-ever terror attack against American civilians. A photograph of the decapitated cockpit and first class section of the 747, lying crushed on its side in a field, became an icon of the disaster, and is perhaps the saddest air crash photo of all time.
Two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were later tried in the Netherlands for the bombing. Fhimah was acquitted, but al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life.
The government of Mohammar Khaddafy would also be held responsible for the 1989 destruction of UTA flight 772. Few Americans remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France (UTA, a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris, was eventually absorbed by Air France). A hundred and seventy people were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the DC-10 on a flight from Congo. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. (Years later, a remarkable memorial, incorporating a section of the plane’s wing, was constructed in the desert where the wreckage landed.)
Khaddafy eventually agreed to blood money settlements for Libya’s hand in both the UTA and Pan Am attacks. The UTA agreement doled out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims. More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin.
The investigation into the Lockerbie bombing was one of the most fascinating and intensive in history. Much of the footwork took place on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the explosive device, hidden inside a Toshiba radio and packed into a suitcase, was assembled and sent on its way. The deadly suitcase traveled first from Malta to Frankfurt, and from there onward to London. Both Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah had been employees of Libyan Arab Airlines, and Fhimah was the station manager there in Malta. During my vacation to the island a couple of years ago, it was a little eerie when I found myself walking past the Libyan Airlines ticket office, which is still there, just inside the gate to the old city of Valletta.
In 2009, in a move that has startled the world, Scottish authorities struck a deal with the Libyan government, and al-Megrahi, terminally ill at the time, was allowed to return home, to be with his family in his final days. He was welcomed back as a hero by many.
There’s lots to read online about flight 103, including many ghastly day-after pictures from Lockerbie. But instead of focusing on the gorier aspects, check out the amazing story of Ken Dornstein, whose brother perished at Lockerbie, and his dogged pursuit of what really happened. (Dornstein, like me, is a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and he lives within walking distance. I’d like to meet him one of these days.)