When Pan Am’s Heart Died

December 21, 1988
Pan Am Flight 103
Outbound, London to New York
Clipper Maid of the Seas

Zoe Longfield dreamed she was cold, colder than death, and flying in the early evening light of the Northern Hemisphere. The sky was eerily reminiscent of the darkness of a Pacific night long ago, when she floated down a moonlit windward passage at sea between night-dark islands, clasped in the arms of her lover, held safe by a tandem harness and his strong, warm body, straining to the keening wind and the clatter of the sails on a starry night, the glint of phosphorescent sea creatures in the embracing waters, the thick, acrid smell of his rubber wet suit, their last night at sea. She had not been frightened then. She was not frightened now, but she knew her time had come.

She could see the lights of a town below quite clearly, could hear screaming voices. The wind? Her own cries? Something smashed into her; someone’s squirming dervish body hit her a glancing blow,grabbing and screaming as it hurtled downwards, as they both plummeted separately, in the dusk of a late Scottish evening,screaming, screaming distantly, and without effect.

In her dream, she clearly remembered turning away from the Purser’s station at the front of the plane just seconds before she felt the tremendous force, the hot thud of an explosion beneath her feet near the galley, deep in the aircraft. She sensed the explosive heat, rather than feeling it, just knowing that it had begun tearing the aircraft apart. She had reached for the telephone handset to warn…whom? Immediately, she knew it was useless, and drew her hand back. Will it hurt? Will it be mercifully quick? She looked out at the still-peaceful cabin, some passengers already asleep in the soft evening light, knowing.

And then chaos erupted as the blackness came with a cobra’s roar from within a demon’s soul, a hot scorching breath of evil done to harm, to murder, to destroy. The pressurized cabin air rushed out with explosive force, and swirling grey air sucked them all down. She seemed to dream of massive sounds of tearing and shrieks of metal penetrating the blackness. For just that instant, she had remained, miraculously, standing at her post next to a jumpseat in the First Class cabin section of a mighty 775,000-pound aircraft 31,000 feet above the dark, rolling hills of the coast of Scotland below, in a windy, fitful sunset of light and rain. The sea glinted off the land, iron grey and immutable.

Then the nosecone ripped away from the fuselage in an apocalyptic fiery explosion, and was hurled at right angles into the right outboard engine, shearing away wing and engine in its urgent fiery descent to the still-silent, verdant lands below, homes and hearth-lights winking warm welcomes to unsuspecting occupants trudging home through the light sleet, anticipating tea and toast and a warm fire. Above the town, still high in the sky, the bulk of the fuselage groaned and bent and buckled, tearing Zoe’s purse from its storage place beneath her seat, spewing forth most of its contents along with thousands of other mundane items of everyday life and workaday equipment: teddy bears and flight bags; crystal wine glasses with folded white linen napkins; a red high-heeled shoe; a tray of iced caviar; a birthday cake; an oxygen bottle. A section of the First Class cabin of four seats hurtled past, their occupants traveling open-mouthed in soundless screams as the oxygen was ripped from their heaving lungs, downwards towards the earth, strapped in and utterly helpless, for the final ride of their lives. Falling fastest away towards earth was the nearly intact nosecone of the aircraft, with its inscription clearly visible: Maid of the Seas, writ large in flowing script.

As Zoe fell farther, she returned to consciousness; her mind cleared. She knew someone has done this terrible thing. How? Why? Was it the work of terrorists? But there were no more answers for her. The cold was no longer biting any more, there was no anger left, no fear of pain or death. She arched her back in the cold twilight, an almost sexual surrender, her eyes on the stars. She breathed out, her heart and mind filled with all the colors and laughter of the years: her darling child Hawea; the inconstant love of Keoki; images of Sally and Billy in the North Shore surf; Sao Johnny’s eyes; the smiles of Khin Khin Su and Po Sein, as she whispered her last words. “I’m flying…I really am flying away.”

Reprinted with permission from Paula Helfrich co author with Rebecca Sprecher of the novel FLYING.

Romlee Stoughton:  Many of us worked on this airplane. We saw the destructive force that brought it down and the subsequent loss of life of all those aboard and 11 on the ground. The toll and impact of this terrorist attack for those who lost someone special is insurmountable. For us, it was our flying partners. Our Pan Am colleagues with whom we shared Pan Am’s world on our fleet of 747 Jumbo Jets. Our planes became the face of America wherever they landed. For us, they became as familiar as our own home. On December 21, 1988 we not only lost friends, we lost one of our homes.
Muffy Harmar writes:

Herewith one of the many telegrams we received at the London base to share with the crews flying over Christmas:

“We were both so terribly shocked and profoundly saddened to learn of the dreadful accident in Scotland and wanted to send our most heartfelt sympathy to the loved ones, relatives and friends of those who so tragically lost their lives. They are ever in our thoughts and prayers.”

Charles and Diana/Prince and Princess of Wales

To continue reading Muffy’s emotional remembrances and others, please click the links below

Pan Am Crew – Flight 103

Lockerbie Remembrances

Where Were You?