By Claudia Reicherter, published originallyDecember 8 2018 and republished with permissions from Claudia , and the German Daily Sudwest Presse.
This compelling account of the night Pan Am 103 crashed in Lockerbie was written for the 30th anniversary of The Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Claudia is at work on a new story for the 35th anniversary. it presents a unique and heart wrenching perspective from the residents of Lockerbie, whose lives were also forever changed. There is a link to a highly personal inerview with Suse Lowenstein (who graciously also granted us permission) at the end of this article.
There was time when Lockerbie was famous for its cheese. And its sheep. They are particularly white and burly and fed from particularly rich green grass on the famous rolling hills surrounding the small market town in southern Scotland. To tie in with those times, in 2013 Dumfries & Galloway Council installed a sheep sculpture as part of a 1.2 million pound regeneration project in the center of Lockerbie. The life-sized brass sheep remind us of the fact that until 1885 it hosted the largest lab fair in Scotland with up to 50,000 young animals regularly changing hands.
The Scotish town with 4500 inhabitants 120 kilometers south of Glasgow and only 30 from the border to England, boasts a red brick town hall with a clock tower opposite the WW I Memorial, a brand new Tesco supermarket, an empty cinema that that served as a bingo-club in the end, one of the oldest ice-skating rinks in the country and a butcher right next to the police station. There are three churches, five pubs, and a station with hourly trains from Edinburgh, GLasgow and Carlisle. “If something is not right, talk to the staff or text BT Police,”an LED sign suggests. Lockerbians seem more gentle than people elsewhere, they greet the stranger in the street, smile at him or her freely and make way for each other if the pavement is too narrow.
Yet for 30 years now, above all, Lockerbie has been associated with terror, death and mourning. Because on the 21st of December 1988 at 1902:50, something was not right at all in this idyllic place. At 9, 488.8 meters above the ground, a fist-sized piece of semtex explosive, bursts a hole in the skin of a jumbo jet.257 people on board and more than six million pieces of debris crash down on the town and its surroundings – as far as the eastern coast of England, 130 kilometers away. Eleven inhabitants of Lockerbie die in the explosion caused by the fuselage, with both wings and the tanks hitting the ground in the residential area of Sherwood close to the nearby motorway in the southwest. The eldest victim of this biggest mass murder to date on British ground is 82 years, the youngest two months old.
If guests in a small bistro in the Scottish Highlands ask about “Lockerbie Cheese” on the menu, the cook no longer tells them about the particularly beautiful big sheep, for which the town in the south of Scotland is famous. Instead, ever since the 21st of December 1988 , he says “it’s from where the plane came down.” Although cheddar and the big cheese factory had already been there long before the bombing, it seems strange if not cynical to American author Ken Dornstein, whose 25-year-old brother David was on board Pan Am flight 103, that there should be a brand called “Lockerbie cheese”. That’s as if one sold “Hiroshima ice cream”, he writes in his 2006 memoir “The Boy Who Fell Out of the sky (Vintage Books, 340 pages).”
“When I say where I come from, the reaction is mostly a sharp intake of breath, followed by oh, ” says retired Lockerbie teacher John Gair (83). Many people have died since, many moved away, new inhabitants came to this fast growing town, “and nobody younger than 32 has any personal recollection about it”, Every Scot, many Americans and people from every corner of the world know at least a little about what happened on this winter solstice evening 30 years ago in Lockerbie.
Eyewitnesses such as John Gair, then 53, and teenager Pearl who lived in the Rosebank district in the eastern part of town will never forget the blast that tore them from their Christmas preparations. They had just been hiding Christmas presents in the wardrobe or putting groceries in the fridge or, like 50-year-old Robert Rafferty, watching the telly as a horrendous roar startled them. A thunderstorm? “Instead of dying down, the thunder grew louder. Then a flash of red light, a wee bit of plaster fell off the ceiling and the carpet lifted up slightly at the end of the hall. That was the effect of the shock waves,” says John Gair who lives roughly 400 metres from the inferno in Sherwood Crescent. While his wife was trying to calm the frantic dog, he looked through his window and saw a huge flame shoot up to the night-sky. “With incandescent fragments in it. That was the explosion of the fuel tanks.”
In Sherwood Crescent Father Canon Patrick Keegans was just getting ready with his visiting mother to go see his friends Dora and Maurice Henry a few houses up the road. The catholic priest, 42 at the time, had been less than a year in Lockerbie suffering from alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies. His first thought was, “so this is where we die,” he recalled later. The explosion didn’t leave a trace of the Henrys or their house.
Pearl was looking out of the front door when the electricity was suddenly gone. Pearl ran outside in order to find her friend who had recently left. She saw objects rain down on the street to her left. “Had I looked the other way, I’d probably seen bodies fall from the sky”, she recalls on the website “plane-truth.com” (no longer in existence). The next morning, 60 dead people were discovered in her neighbour’s yard whose house was destroyed by the back of the plane.
Robert Rafferty ran as well – with his son to the grandparents’ house in the High Street. They thought there had been a gas explosion, the 80-year-old man remembers. “Then we fought the fires which seemed all over the place, also at the petrol station.” They feared that might blow up as well. John Gair believed initially that one of the fighter jets that used to fly low over the town had crashed, but normally they didn’t fly at night.
Suitcases and “passports that rescuers, locals and farmers soon found in the streets, in their gardens and on their fields revealed: It was a passenger jet.” The news quickly travelled around the world. Whether the Boeing had come down because of an accident or an attack still remained unknown.
Even though Reverend John F. Mosey had just dropped his daughter Helga’s (19) luggage at the Pan Am check-in at Heathrow airport, he didn’t suspect at first that the plane crash over Scotland had anything to do with his family. “It’s always another universe on TV, that’s not us” says the 78-year-old pastor who has since moved from Birmingham to Lancashire. “Then a lady from the parish called and asked if Helga was okay.” There was a shocked silence in the Moseys’ living room. “Then our 16-year-old son Marcus started screaming ,no! no! no!’ at the telly”, his wife Lisa Mosey (80) adds.”
Ken Dornstein remembers sleeping well back home in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania/USA, “the night my brother died, ” he tells us at the beginning of his book. In the morning, the student read about the crash in the paper. But only when someone from Pan Am called did the 19-year-old and his father make the connection from the catastrophe to David who was to come back later that week from a long trip abroad.
Ursula Funke tried to calm her dad in their home in the German Sauerland-region. He had heard about the disaster and was wondering if this might concern his youngest daughter Maria who was joyfully on her way from Frankfurt to visit the middle daughter Anna in Argentina. Ursula, 27 at the time, tried all night to call the hotline that had been shown in the TV news. She got through at about 4 am, at 8 she knew: her sister Maria was on the passenger-list. “But I still had hope she’d call any minute telling us she’d missed the plane”, Ursula remembers. She organized to get x-ray documents of her sister from the doctor and flew to Lockerbie, accompanied by a Pan Am employee, to help identify her younger sibling’s body.
“We walk with a limp now”
Suse Lowenstein, 45, was working in her studio on Long Island on a sculpture that her son Alexander (21) had posed for before leaving together with 34 fellow students of Syracuse University for a term abroad in London. A friend of his called, asked for details of the airline and flight number of his trip home and finally cried out “but haven’t you heard? It exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland!”. She shouted back: “Never say anything like that again!” Then she remembers sinking to the ground because she felt she was going to faint. “It felt as if life was being sucked out of me”, the 75-year-old mother who has been born in Berlin, grown up in Hamburg and been living for 55 years in the US now recalls. Obviously, time has its effects, she says. “But this terrible feeling of loss never softens.”
Lisa Mosey is originally from Germany as well. Once a year, she still goes to see her sister in Calw, near the Black Forest. “The pain changes over the years”, she says. “But it never stops.” Ursula Funke agrees: The sadness has become a silent partner in her life. “It’s as if you lost a part of your body. You learn to live with it, but you can never forget.” Losing his 19-year-old daughter Helga, an aspiring singer, is like an amputation for John Mosey as well: “We walk with a limp now.”
Like many others, Pearl has since moved away from Lockerbie. To South Africa. Their christian faith helps Lisa and John Mosey. With the compensation money they got for the death of their daughter, they now help children in the Philippines to live. Suse Lowenstein started therapy, but that didn’t work. “The therapist was crying all the time. I had to console him. So I decided to make the tragedy a part of me, to embrace it and to live with it. And thank God I can express myself through my art!” 75 other women struck by the bombing posed for a huge sculpture that Suse now shows publicly in her garden in Montauk. “Dark Elegy” depicts the mothers, wives, fiancées, sisters and daughters in the pose their bodies took when they heard the terrible news.
Ken Dornstein (49) keeps writing and investigating the circumstances that led to the murder of his brother and 269 other innocent civilians including 179 US citizens – publishing books, articles and in 2015 the TV documentary “My brother’s Bomber.”
John Crawford, then a 43-year-old-police officer from Edinburgh was busy looking for victims and debris for weeks after the catastrophe, and later was involved in solving the crime for many years. , He has also written his story down in a book published in 2002: “The Lockerbie Incident – A Detective’s Tale” (Trafford Press, 352 pages). He explains the line of evidence that led to the conviction of a Libyan in 2001. The now retired detective not only writes against his own post-traumatic stress disorder but wants to help relatives to finally find some peace – as does Kenny MacAskill, former Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government, with “The Lockerbie Bombing” (Biteback, 336 pages) in 2017.
That this horrible attack leaves many people restless to this day does not only have to do with the picture of the cockpit on a field of Tundergarth Mains Farm 4,5 Kilometers east of Lockerbie that became an emblem of the brittleness of our modern mobile society. But also with the fact that for Suse Lowenstein, Linda and John Mosey and Ursula Funke the libyan Secret Service Agent who was arrested, tried and sentenced to a life in jail is a “pawn offer”. They want to find peace as do so many others of the far more than 270 victims of the tragedy to do with PA103 – among them many more Germans than the four citizens of “West Germany” who were on board. Alexander Lowenstein’s grandparents in Hamburg, for instance, who had just two weeks before his premature death got to know this sparkling young man, or a Spanish flight attendant’s German husband whom Davie Wilson met some years ago in Lockerbie.
Wilson, now 75, is involved like John Gair with Dryfesdale Lodge visitor centre near the Garden of Remembrance on the cemetery which still attracts more than 7500 visitors a year. They leave flowers, letters, scarves and toys there of in one or the other two very dignified, peaceful and decent memorial places in and around town. “Val, we love and miss you”, is written on one of the little cards. The 300-pages book of condolences in the “Remembrance Room” next to Tundergarth church features 35 entries this last October alone. Among them a letter to William MacAlister, who died at 26, from his “little sister” and her eleven-year-old daughter – the mourning spanning generations.
The close relationship with her sister Anna and her parents has helped Ursula Funke. “And the kindness and affection with which Lockerbie residents and Scottish police have treated us. Even 30 years on, I haven’t forgotten that and I never will!” The warm-hearted help she received at the time, she’s now passing on herself to people seeking help and shelter such as refugees in her village.
“What the people of Lockerbie have experienced that night must have been horrific. I can’t even imagine what they went through finding the cockpit on their land. I will be forever grateful to them for what they did to the victims, our loved ones. The way they washed, laundered and ironed every single item that they found, I mean, who does that? It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. And the package came with the things Alexander had with him – the way the shoes had been washed and dried, filled with tissue paper and some of his T-shirts were shredded but they were laundered and ironed and wrapped in tissue paper. It was incredible, absolutely incredible” – for Suse Lowenstein “these people are saints”.
Among them Father Keegans who didn’t touch alcohol any more after the night of 21st of December 1988 but instead gave hope and solace to the bereaved.
Damage on buildings and roads and landscape has long been mended: Where the crater had emerged in Sherwood, there’s now a memorial stone surrounded by a small park. The houses around it are new. Wooden elks and snow-topped hedgehogs are crowding the shopfront windows – like then probably – illuminated by festive lighting along High Street.
Ursula Funke would like to close that chapter which is why she is thinking about going back to Lockerbie for the memorial service on the 30th anniversary. Lisa and John Mosey however “just want the truth”. They are convinced that was “a preventable disaster”. From an anonymous phonecall to the US embassy in Helsinki, “they knew what to look for, a Toshiba radio cassette recorder, they knew where to look, a PanAm flight Frankfurt via Heathrow to the US, and they knew when, a time window of two weeks – the disaster happened one day after that.” The warnings had apparently only been transmitted to VIPs which is why one third of the Boeing’s seats were empty.
Even the latest publication on the topic “Lockerbie: The Truth” (History Press, 288 pages) by Douglas Boyd concludes “it seems we shall never know officially who killed all those people”. Therefore not only Suse Lowenstein is left with the terrible feeling: “they’ve let our kids walk onto that plane like innocent sheep – to be killed”.
To read An Interview With Suse Lowenstein click the green text.