Lockerbie seeks to turn page on Pan Am disaster

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 18 2008 08:20 PM | Updated as of Dec 31 2008 07:46 PM

LOCKERBIE, Scotland - Lockerbie residents will never forget the terror of the night 20 years ago when a plane exploded over their small Scottish town -- but hope the anniversary Sunday will help them move on.

Burning wreckage and bodies rained down from the sky after Pan Am Flight 103 was ripped apart above Lockerbie, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 on the ground on December 21, 1988.

"I was watching television at home with my daughter and I thought we had thunder... but it became louder and louder," recalls Marjory McQueen, 62, who runs the visitor centre that caters to those coming to see the memorial here.

"So I ran out of the house and I saw what I now know to be part of the aircraft passing the house and landed in Sherwood Crescent and there was a huge fireball up into the air over 300 metres."

Retired police inspector George Stobbs was one of the first to arrive at the scene of the crash, and remembers "a great hole in the ground with boiling aviation fuel in it. From what I could see the houses were no longer there."

The 74-year-old initially believed a military airplane had crashed, but soon realised the scale of the catastrophe. Christmas that year was over.

A huge crater was formed by the plane's fuselage which had plummeted to the ground after a bomb onboard exploded less than an hour into the flight from London to New York. The houses that once stood there were left as shells.

Today the crater has been filled, replaced by a remembrance garden planted with rhododendrons and fir trees.

A line of new brick houses has been built, and only a plaque bears witness to the residents of Lockerbie whose lives were so brutally snatched away.

On Sunday, wreaths will be placed before the marble monument bearing the names of the victims which has been erected the Dryfesdale cemetery, at the entrance to this quiet town surrounded by green hills.

There will also be religious services, but no major ceremony as there was on the 10th anniversary.

"We wanted it to be as low key as possible," said Sandy Stoddart, a minister of the Church of Scotland.

Jim Swire, whose 23-year-old daughter Flora was in the plane, said there were "differences of priorities between relatives of the persons who died in the plane and the city who would like the attention to go away."

The former doctor told AFP that he would attend a memorial service on Sunday with other Britain-based relatives and friends of the victims at London's Heathrow airport.

Other ceremonies are also planned in the United States for the 180 Americans who were killed.

But if the victims' loved ones remain in mourning, the town of Lockerbie is keen to move beyond what is the darkest day in their history.

Whatever the ongoing political and legal fall-out from the tragedy -- former Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet Al-Megrahi was jailed over the bombing -- McQueen says: "This is not our fight."

"The town has moved on very quickly," she said, adding: "We were not meant to be any part of this. We're collateral damage I think."

Stobbs agreed. "I think that Lockerbie itself has recovered from the incident," he said. "Christmas is back in Lockerbie and has been for a number of years now."