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We Remember: Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, December 21, 1988

We Remember: Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, December 21, 1988

It’s personal: Among the 270 people killed were 35 students from my campus, Syracuse University

On December 21, 1988—30 years ago today—Pan Am Flight 103 dropped from the night sky killing 270 people, including all 259 of its passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground in the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, which lies 120km southwest of Glasgow.

It was the deadliest terror attack ever on UK soil.

According to an FBI report on the bombing that was released this week:

Mothers and fathers, grandparents, children as young as 2 months old, and college students returning home from a study abroad program lost their lives in what was the largest terror attack in American history until 9/11”.

Out of the people who were on the plane, 189 were Americans (33 were British). The rest were citizens of nearly two dozen other countries.

Thirty-five of the passengers were students from my college campus who were heading home from their study abroad programs in London and Florence to be with family and friends for the holidays.

Marking the 30th Anniversary of the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

In the days after the attack, suspicions quickly centered on Libya, given the degree of hostilities between the U.S. and Libya at the time.

But the investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice would take years, and even now there are many who believe that a Libyan man was wrongly convicted, that other perpetrators remain at large, and that the Iranian regime and not Libya was behind the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Due to these ongoing controversies and the sheer magnitude of the losses, during the last three decades there have been hundreds of articles written and dozens of films produced about this deadly terror attack.

A memorial book movingly documents each one of the lives lost. A number of websites (see, for example, here) archive the bombing and its aftermath. There’s an organization run by the victims’ families. Numerous commemorative events to honor the victims take place each year in Scotland and the U.S. Many memorials have also been established and have been lovingly maintained over the years.

This past week, in advance of the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, the FBI has produced an in-depth report and has released a 20-minute video that provides a good background to the terror attack and subsequent investigation:

It’s also released 15 short video clips with testimony from first responders, family members of the victims, and Lockerbie residents (including a group of women dubbed the ‘laundry ladies’ who spent more than a year cleaning the recovered clothing of the victims so that these items could eventually be returned to their families):

The clips also include remarks from those who have been involved in the still open criminal investigation. Here’s several of these:

In addition, scores of news articles and stories have been published in recent days that revisit that horrible winter night in 1988, how Lockerbie has changed since the Pan Am disaster, and what the families of the victims and the people of Lockerbie are doing today to keep the memory of the victims alive.

Taken together, they provide literally hundreds of images and video clips for those interested in learning more about what happened and about the hundreds of innocents who lost their lives on December 21, 1988.

Below I provide an overview of the plane bombing and the questions that remain about the investigation and murder inquiry. I also include sections on the victims, including the 35 students from my own campus—Syracuse University (SU)—who were murdered on that dark winter night.

The Horror in Lockerbie: December 21, 1988

Sherwood Crescent in the small, picturesque town of Lockerbie is like thousands of other quiet residential streets across Scotland and there’s little indication today among its homes and gardens of the terror that was visited upon it 30 years ago.

Pan Am Flight 103 was a regular transatlantic flight at the time, flying from Frankfurt to Detroit with stops in London and New York.

Some 38 minutes after take-off from Heathrow Airport, about 31,000 feet above Lockerbie, a bomb packed in a suitcase exploded.

It blew a hole in the Boeing 747, which was named Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Investigators reportedly found no evidence that the crew had initiated any emergency procedures—there hadn’t been any time to do so.

The jet basically broke up mid-air. Its nose cone and engine peeling away from its chassis, the wings and the fuel that would’ve propelled the Boeing 747 across the Atlantic landed in what would be described as a “sheet of fire” by the residents in and around Lockerbie.

[Sherwood Crescent on fire following the plane explosion | December 21, 1988 | credit: YouTube screenshot]

It was 7:03pm in Lockerbie—people were sitting down to dinner, watching TV, wrapping Christmas presents, at home doing ordinary things. They had no advance notice that fuselage was heading straight toward them.

The fuselage came down in Sherwood Crescent, leaving a tremendous impact crater and causing the British Geological Survey 15 miles away to register a seismic event measuring 1.6 on the Richter scale.

It destroyed 21 houses. No trace of some of the victims in these houses was ever found, as they were vaporized in the fireball.

The hours after the plane crash were gruesome—a literal hell on earth. First responders and residents of Lockerbie who went out to help found dead bodies—many fully intact—in the nearby fields, on pavements and roof tops, and in gardens.

In an article for the Daily Mail, truck driver Mark Herridge recalls rushing to the scene, hoping to find someone alive. On a hedge about eight miles from the cockpit of the 747 he found the body of three-year-old Sur-uchi Rattan who was killed along with her mother, Garima, and her brother, Anmol (2):

I could see it was a child straight away, a little girl in a red outfit and I had to look away. I had a 10-month-old son at home. She was just lying in a hedge, face up, barely a scratch on her. The hedge was near an old farm building where another passenger had fallen in to the barn roof, still sitting in their passenger seat. I’d never seen a dead body before and after what I witnessed that night, I never want to see one again.”

There are dozens of such harrowing stories in the articles I read for this post. Almost unbearable to read was how everyone described finding wrapped Christmas presents littered on the ground along with the bodies.

The Victims

None of the plane’s 243 passengers or 16 crew (150 men and 109 women) survived the crash. While the vast majority of those killed were American citizens, there were victims from 21 different nationalities among the dead. They came from all walks of life, held a myriad of professions, were both young and old, and were of different faiths.

[Credit: YouTube screenshot]

The Scotsman reports:

The youngest victim onboard the plane was two-month-old Brittany Williams, of New York; the oldest, Iboly Gabor, 79, from Budapest, Hungary, who had survived two world wars and was traveling to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with her family. Other passengers included Bernt Carlsson, 50, the UN Commissioner for Namibia, and Matthew Gannon, the CIA’s deputy station chief in Beirut.”

This week’s media coverage of the bombing offers information about many of the victims, and how they were found and identified. Many of these stories are incredibly moving.

For example, a number of articles mention how Lockerbie resident Josephine Donaldson spotted a handbag lying on the ground in her garden. When she looked inside, she discovered that it belonged to Nicole Boulanger—an SU student, and talented singer, dancer and musician, who had just celebrated her 21st birthday. The birthday cards were still in her purse. (In an interview this week, Donaldson said that she lays flowers for Boulanger every year on her birthday and on December 21st in Lockerbie’s memorial garden).

In another story, a farmer—David Stewart—recalls finding one of the youngest victims of the Lockerbie bombing—a toddler. Stewart was a teenager at the time and in his family’s farm house when the plane exploded. His father decided they should go out to check their fields. In an interview this past week, Stewart remarked that

All I can remember is she had really, really blonde hair. That’s what sticks out in my mind the most. This little girl with blonde, blonde hair.”

The child was identified as Bryony Owen, traveling to the U.S. with her mother Yvonne. They were buried together in a single coffin in Wales.

Among the 11 people killed on the ground when the wreckage of the Boeing 747 crashed into their homes were elderly residents of Sherwood Crescent and young children—the youngest was 10 and the oldest was 82.

In one family—the Flannigans—both a mother and father were killed along with their ten year old daughter, Joanne. The Flannigans’ 14-year-old son survived because he had taken a bike intended for his sister Joanne’s Christmas present to be repaired at a neighbor’s house. His older brother David was living elsewhere and so he also survived. For these two brothers, all that was left of their family and their home was a tiny tin watering can—everybody and everything else had gone up in the inferno when parts of Flight 103 crashed into Lockerbie.

The Search for Justice

In the days and weeks after the bombing, a “painstaking investigation” was carried out to reconstruct the plane from wreckage that was strewn across an 850 square mile area. One of the trails of debris extended almost 70 miles across the east coast of England.

From the wreckage, fragments of a Samsonite suitcase used to hide the bomb were recovered. A small Toshiba radio-cassette player, packed with Semtex explosives, had been hidden in that piece of baggage.

According to the FBI:

Aviation security as we know it today did not exist in 1988. The bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 was concealed in a cassette recorder and packed inside a suitcase that was loaded onto a flight from Malta to Frankfurt, Germany, with no accompanying passenger. The suitcase was then routed to a feeder flight in Frankfurt bound for London’s Heathrow Airport, when it was ultimately loaded onto the doomed jet.”

Clothing from the same suitcase was found to have come from a store in Malta that was owned by Tony Gauci. He would later identify Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi as the man who had bought the items to wrap and hide the bomb that would bring down Pan Am Flight 103.

So, the police investigation eventually led to Libya, because Megrahi was an intelligence officer and chief of security for Libyan Arab Airlines. This allowed him regular visits to Malta where the company had an office. According to investigators, Megrahi used fake passports and was able to travel to Zurich where the timer for the bomb was manufactured.

Megrahi and a co-conspirator, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, were indicted for the bombing in 1991. But it took 8 additional years before Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to hand over the two men for trial.

They were tried under Scots law at a neutral location—a former U.S. Air Force base at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. The trial began on May 3, 2000—nearly a dozen years after the terror attack.

On January 31, 2001 Megrahi was convicted of murder by a panel of three Scottish judges and was sentenced to life behind bars (Fhimah was acquitted). He was sent to a prison in Glasgow but his wife and children reportedly moved to a home, purchased for them by Gaddafi’s son, in an upscale suburb nearby.

By all accounts that I read Megrahi wasn’t mistreated while in prison. In fact, efforts were reportedly made to provide him with halal food, leading to that area of the prison being called “Gaddafi’s café” by other prisoners. Later, Megrahi was moved to Greenock prison where he spent the remainder of his time in custody with other prisoners serving life sentences.

An initial legal appeal was refused, but in September 2003 Megrahi applied to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) asking for a review of his conviction. In 2007, the SCCRC announced that it would refer the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal after it found that Megrahi may have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Megrahi dropped the appeal in 2009 when it looked likely that he would be released on compassionate grounds by then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill. Diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, doctors estimated that he had only three months to live.

So, after being jailed for just 7 years, Megrahi was returned to Libya. He didn’t die right away though and ended up living another three years (reportedly his life was extended by being able to take a drug which at the time was not available to cancer patients through the UK’s public health care system). He died of prostrate cancer at aged 60 in 2012.

Many, including the families of the victims, are reportedly “satisfied of Megrahi’s guilt” even though he died protesting his innocence.

It’s certainly possible that the bombing was carried out by Megrahi—as a Lebanese intelligence officer he could have been put into service for the heinous deed by the then-Libyan dictator Gaddafi in retaliation for U.S. air strikes.

But others are convinced that he was “scapegoated for the attack”. Jim Swire, who lost his daughter Flora (28) in the bombing and eventually became the spokesperson for the UK families, has worked for years to overturn the conviction. The family of Megrahi have also fought to clear his name.

Earlier this year, the SCCRC began reviewing Megrahi’s conviction for a second time to decide if a “fresh appeal” can be made.

According to the FBI, the case is still open and “being actively investigated” with its Scottish partners. The FBI believes there are more co-conspirators involved in the plot.

Some U.S. investigators also reportedly believe that Iran was involved in the attack, possibly as revenge for a July 1988 incident in which a U.S. warship accidentally downed an Iran Air plane.

Claims that Teheran ordered the destruction of Pan Am 103 (and not Gaddafi’s Libya) have re-surfaced in an article published yesterday in the Daily Mail. In it the daughter of a now deceased Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist insists that she has proof that a PFLP terrorist cell, under the direction of mastermind Ahmed Jibril and in the “pay of the Iranian regime”, perpetrated the bombing.

Scottish MSP Christine Graham says that these new allegations increase the fear that Megrahi may have been “the fall guy” and wrongfully convicted, with Libya “taking the rap” for various reasons. Jim Swire, also quoted in the article, agrees.

Obviously, the new claims underscore the need to keep this investigation open and to push hard for further indictments and convictions.

According to this week’s FBI report on the bombing:

Then as now, the goal is to hold everyone involved responsible for the crime and to bring justice to the families of the victims…the FBI does not forget. The American people—and our adversaries—need to know that we don’t give up”.

Commemorating the Victims

Today the 270 people killed in the Lockerbie bombing will be remembered in services in Scotland and in the U.S.

Wreaths will reportedly be laid at a memorial garden in Lockerbie.

A remembrance service will also be held at Syracuse University—beginning at 2:03 EST, the exact time that the bomb exploded. At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where a cairn made from Lockerbie stone honors the memory of those killed, about 500 people are expected to attend a memorial service. An anniversary service will also be held at the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC.

These are commemorations that will take place at the well-known Lockerbie memorials.

But some memorials are less familiar—like one in a field four miles south of Lockerbie. It was built by the Lowensteins, from Montauk, Long Island (NY), to mark the site where their son Alexander fell from the sky, among the 35 SU students who died on the night of December 21, 1988. The Lowensteins built a traditional stone cairn on the spot.

Today Alexander would have been 51 years old. But his life was cut short at 21.

Syracuse University Remembers

In most of the news articles and reports that I read for this post, the 35 students from Syracuse University (SU) who were on board the jet are mentioned, and in a quite a few even prominently featured.

A month after the terror attack, SU held its first memorial service to honor the murdered students from Pan Am Flight 103. Then Chancellor Melvin Eggers (I work in a building named after him) announced the establishment of a Remembrance Scholars Fund and plans for a memorial on campus, vowing to the families that their “sons and daughters will be remembered at Syracuse University so long as any of us shall live and so long as the university shall stand.”

That’s a pledge that’s been kept. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who works or studies at SU who doesn’t know something about the Lockerbie bombing given all the events that take place throughout the year commemorating the 35 former students whose lives were lost in December 1988.

Each year SU names 35 Remembrance Scholars from among the undergraduate student body—they organize an annual Remembrance Week on campus, meet with the families of the victims, and raise awareness about terrorism. Moving ceremonies and rituals have developed over the years, including a Fall semester rose-laying ceremony at the memorial at the entrance to the campus.

You can read here about Katie Berrell, one of this year’s Remembrance Scholars. She’s the niece of the late Steven Russell Berrell, and the first direct relative to represent one of the 35 SU student victims from Pan Am 103 (Steve was a dual major in communications and marketing and just 20 years old when he was killed).

SU also hosts two students each year from Lockerbie.

This past year, my school has remembered the victims of Pan Am 103 in a variety of new ways. Back in October, 35 trees were planted on South Campus to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the terror attack.

The next month, a team of cyclists from Lockerbie arrived in Syracuse after completing a 3,238-mile journey in honor of the Pan Am victims.

A new exhibition, “We Remember Them”, is also on display this year through June at the campus Bird Library. I went to see it yesterday.

[credit: Miriam Elman]

The exhibit consists of archival materials donated by the victims’ families and other community members that provide an overview of the investigation, document the lives lost, and show how they are remembered.

The exhibit also includes a number of items that highlight the impact that the victims’ families had on measures that would improve U.S. aviation safety. A letter from former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker commends them for their help in passing a law that set up new training standards for airport security staff:

[credit: Miriam Elman]

Items on display include artwork and publications, memorabilia and images of various memorial sites.

[credit: Miriam Elman]

All of it is worth seeing. But the items that I found most heartbreaking were several Pan Am boarding passes made out to two of the students who died—that they remained intact during the crash is astonishing:

[credit: Miriam Elman]

Today, at 2:03 EST the Dean and chaplains of Hendricks Chapel will conduct a remembrance service. Prayers, reflections and the reading of the names of the 35 students who were lost will be included in the service. SU’s Crouse Chimes will also sound 35 times.


Thirty years ago today a transatlantic flight carrying mainly U.S. citizens was blown out of the sky by a bomb over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie.

In the articles I read about this bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, many called it a “tragedy”.

Of course, the families of the 270 victims experienced the bombing as a terrible tragedy in their lives. Still, I think that ‘tragic’ is the wrong word to use to describe what happened on December 21, 1988. This term should be reserved to depict the suffering caused from a freak natural disaster or from a horrible accident—like a mechanical failure.

The Lockerbie bombing wasn’t any of those things.

It was a deliberate and carefully thought out crime against humanity—those who planned it and executed it new exactly what they were doing and how hundreds if not thousands of lives would be shattered as a result of their wicked and sinful actions.

Bottom line: we should never forget that 270 innocent souls perished thirty years ago today because of a despicable and intentional act of pure evil.

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Recently, Elman was included on the Algemeiner newspaper’s 2018 list of the top 100 people worldwide who are “positively influencing Jewish life.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman


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American Human | December 21, 2018 at 3:36 pm

I read the articles about this every year. I was living here in Frederick and followed the news and the investigation very closely. I still do.

A both very informative and touching tribute.

I wonder how faculty and student BDS advocates feel on a day like today? Will they stop for even a second to reconsider their misplaced blame casting Israel and America as the villains in this ongoing global guerrilla war?

Will the slightest reprioritization of their compilation of outrage take place? Will the crisis of microaggressions seem a tad bit silly by comparison?

Will an order of vertebrates bravely evolve among them to develop a new taxonomy of injustice more in accordance with reality, or will the kingdom of intersectionality be doomed to devolve into an increasingly overspecialized ecological niche of self-delusion?

JusticeDelivered | December 21, 2018 at 5:21 pm

Iran should be softened up by destroying all the forty plus reservoirs and hydroelectric dams. This would cripple them and for the most part put a stop to their dirty dealing. If they try to rebuild, wait until they are nearly done, and then destroy the new construction.

Paul In Sweden | December 21, 2018 at 7:04 pm

Today we remember the shameful release of the Islamist terrorist

As Scotland releases the low life scum Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, don’t forget that the vast majority of those he murdered in this cowardly islamic act of terror were Americans, on their way home for Christmas on Pan Am Flight 103! Although Obama has urged the Libyan Gov to keep al-Megrahi under house arrest (Qaddafi says no), this is just another, in a long list of Obama failures. I wonder if Scottish lawmakers felt that their dead were not directly attacked, therefore leniency for the blood cult mass murderer. Maybe they think the bomber didn’t mean to blow it up over their country. This an insult to the families 2:10 of these murdered Americans. These were our people. Who will seek justice for them. al-Megrahi should have been hung years ago!

–(4) Pan Am Flight 103 Terrorist Released in Scotland – YouTube

I was a Pan Am pilot when this horror occurred. I was flying the Airbus 310 from Frankfort at the time of the bombing. I knew the crew of the downed plane. There is nothing like the anger and rage that I and the other pilots felt. To see the political correctness of the tediousness of the process that took place only made it worse. We knew who did it and the old vigilante blood began to boil. I will never get over this horror and the word “Tragedy” is not the term to use when describing it.

Merck and the world lost a brilliant researcher who was working on the viruses associated with the common cold and hopefully a cure before being on that fatal flight. I worked in the international division and many of my associates were loyal Pan Am frequent flyers.