Most Americans were awakened to the reality of terrorism on September 11, 2001, but more than a decade earlier, a few days before Christmas in 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, bound to New York from London and carrying mainly U.S. citizens, was blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb over the small Scottish town of Lockerbie.
In all, 270 souls perished. On board the aircraft were citizens of 21 countries, including 189 Americans. On the ground, 11 residents of Lockerbie were killed when the plane’s burning wings plunged into a quiet neighborhood just after dinner. 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 terrorist attack in American history until 9/11.
The bombing, believed to be carried out by Libyan intelligence officers in retaliation for U.S. actions against then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was a transformative event for the FBI, one that changed the way the Bureau investigates terrorism and assists victims of crimes.
Although two individuals were eventually arrested and tried under Scots law in a special court in the Netherlands, the case is still open and being actively investigated by the FBI and its Scottish partners. Then as now, the goal is to hold everyone involved responsible for the crime and to bring justice to the families of the victims.
Despite the passage of three decades, noted Mike McGarrity, who leads the Bureau’s Counterterrorism Division, “the FBI does not forget. The American people—and our adversaries—need to know that we don’t give up.”
For the families who lost loved ones; for the Scottish police officers, firefighters, and volunteers who responded to an unprecedented disaster; for investigators and prosecutors who dedicated years of effort to the case; and for the residents of Lockerbie, there is no forgetting December 21, 1988. In fact, many have vowed never to forget, to make sure the lessons of Lockerbie are not lost on future generations.
Thirty years ago, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 sent a shock wave around the world. In many ways, the reverberations are still being felt today.
December 21, 1988
Passengers aboard Pan Am Flight 103 were in a festive mood four days before Christmas. For many, including 35 students from Syracuse University who had been studying abroad, it was a much-anticipated homecoming, a reunion with family and friends in time for the holidays.
On the ground in Lockerbie, it was early evening. In many homes, dinner plates had been cleared away, televisions were tuned to This Is Your Life, and parents were wrapping presents.
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, where it was ultimately loaded onto the doomed jet.
Flying at an altitude of 31,000 feet, the aircraft had just crossed the border into Scotland when the bomb exploded. The plane’s wings, along with tanks carrying 100 tons of jet fuel, plummeted into Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent neighborhood, creating an inferno and a crater more than 150 feet deep that registered miles away as a seismic event. At 7:03 p.m., 11 Sherwood Crescent residents, including a family of four, were killed instantly.
David Jardine, now a group commander with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, was 19 years old and had just completed basic training with the Dumfries and Galloway Fire Brigade. He was among those who answered the emergency call and sped east from the Dumfries stationhouse. As the fire trucks crested a hill a few miles away from Lockerbie, “we could see the glow,” Jardine said. “We knew there was a very serious incident there.”
George Stobbs was the senior police inspector with the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary when the disaster occurred. He had worked a day shift and was at home when a newsflash on the television announced that an airplane had crashed. Stobbs immediately made his way to Lockerbie and then to Sherwood Crescent. “There was a great roaring noise and flames coming out of a great big hole in the ground and dense, dense smoke. Terrific heat,” he recalled. “I actually saw a wrought iron gate melting. It was like it was made of butter, and it was dripping.”
Other parts of the jetliner came to rest in and around Lockerbie. The rear fuselage and landing gear crashed into the Rosebank Crescent neighborhood in the center of town. The nose cone landed a few miles away in a field opposite a church, images of which would become an iconic testament to the tragedy. Some 300 tons of wreckage were scattered over an area measuring 845 square miles, making the disaster also a crime scene of massive proportions.
In the aftermath of the bombing, rescue workers and investigators combed through the wreckage in Lockerbie’s hard-hit Rosebank neighborhood. Debris from the plane was scattered over an 845-square-mile area, and Scottish investigators meticulously searched for and catalogued evidence. Pan Am Flight 103’s nose cone landed a few miles away from Lockerbie in a field opposite Tundergarth Church. (Photos courtesy of Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives, Syracuse University Libraries)
Within a week of what Scottish authorities were calling the Lockerbie air disaster, it was determined that Pan Am Flight 103 had been destroyed by a bomb. But when the plane dropped out of the sky that night, no one was certain what had happened.
The Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary—then the smallest mainland police force in the United Kingdom, with fewer than two dozen of its approximately 300 officers serving Lockerbie—took command of the scene. In a matter of hours, thousands of police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and other volunteers converged on rural Lockerbie.
“There was not an emergency plan as such at the time,” said Stuart Cossar, a Police Scotland detective inspector who until his recent retirement was the deputy senior investigating officer for the ongoing investigation. “People were turning up for duty that had just finished a 10-hour shift but were prepared to come back out and work again right through the night.”
Harry Bell was a 42-year-old detective stationed near Glasgow, more than an hour away from Lockerbie. When he got news of the crash, he made his way to Lockerbie near midnight and was placed in charge of an area called Sector B. He would later lead a team of investigators that followed the evidence to Malta. Like many of his colleagues, the case consumed every minute of his professional life. When the disaster occurred, Bell’s Glasgow desk contained files of all the cases he was working on. “I left my office that night,” he said, “and I didn't get back there for three years.”
From the outset, the Scottish police treated the disaster as a crime scene and preserved everything that might be evidence. Geographical boundaries were drawn into sectors, and a dedicated team was assigned to each. Anything recovered was meticulously cataloged. “When you consider that some of the most critical exhibits, or productions, of the case were found 80 miles from Lockerbie,” Cossar said, “it shows you the scale of the search.”
“A crime scene for me was normally a house or a room or a field with a person lying in it,” said Bell, whose sector included the hard-hit Rosebank neighborhood. “This was just a catastrophe. It was like a battlefield. Nothing could have prepared you.”
Retired Special Agent Dick Marquise was assigned to lead the FBI’s investigation. He credits the Scots’ thoroughness and professionalism, under extreme circumstances, with finding critical evidence—pieces of the suitcase containing the bomb, fragments of a circuit board, bits of clothing traced to a Malta business—that led to the Libyan intelligence officers. “Sharing information and paying attention to even the smallest detail helped solve the case,” he said.
After a three-year investigation in which the FBI and Scottish authorities worked hand in hand, the British and American governments in November 1991 announced indictments and warrants for the arrests of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah. It would be nearly a decade before the Libyan government turned the two over to face trial.
Investigators believed then, as they do today, that more co-conspirators were involved in the plot.
Some 300 tons of wreckage were recovered to help with the reconstruction of Pan Am Flight 103. That process, along with key pieces of evidence, led investigators to two Libyan intelligence officers who were part of the terrorist plot. Evidence presented at trial included a replica of the suitcase that contained the bomb, a reproduction of the plastic explosive placed inside a cassette recorder, and a recovered clothing fragment traced to a shop in Malta.
The trial began on May 3, 2000. It was held at a former U.S. Air Force base in the Netherlands called Camp Zeist, which was converted into a Scottish court as well as a detention facility for the two defendants.
Kathryn Turman, assistant director of the FBI’s Victim Services Division, at the time headed the Office for Victims of Crime at the Department of Justice and was asked to create an assistance plan for families of the victims during the trial. “My task was to figure out how to support 270 families through a trial in another country,” she said. “They were mostly American, many were British, but they were also from the Philippines, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Canada, all over. So we had to figure out how to make the trial accessible to everyone.”
That was a tall order, considering that assisting federal crime victims at all was a fairly new concept.
“The FBI, the Justice Department, no one really had much of a program of assistance in 1988 when Pan Am 103 happened,” Turman said. “It really wasn’t until the two Libyans were handed over for trial that the plight of the families came back up. The first thing was to really try to understand what the families wanted and expected,” she explained. “It was 11 years after the bombing. People had gone through a lot of different life experiences since then, but almost everyone had an avid interest in the trial.”
Turman’s team proposed an idea without precedent: Create a website and provide closed-circuit video coverage of the trial that families could access in various locations on two continents.
“This had never been done in a Scottish court,” said Tom McCulloch, who was a police officer with the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary when the Lockerbie air disaster occurred. He became a senior investigating officer on the case and was the person who arrested al-Megrahi and Fhimah. “We very much had a tradition where the court building was sacrosanct,” McCulloch said. “We didn’t disclose a great deal of material to victims for fear that it would somehow damage the investigation.”
More than a decade after the bombing, the trial of two Libyan intelligence officers began on May 3, 2000, at a special court in the Netherlands. In an unprecedented move, Scottish authorities allowed the trial to be broadcast via closed-circuit video in locations on two continents so that families of the victims could have access to the proceedings. (ITN/Getty Images)
The magnitude of this case required new thinking. “We had to have another look at ourselves and decide we are not simply dealing with people from Scotland, from the United Kingdom,” McCulloch said. “We are dealing with people from all over the world who don’t understand the Scottish legal system. They don’t understand why we are reluctant to disclose information about the investigation.”
The Scottish court agreed, allowing a live feed of the trial to two sites in the United Kingdom—one in Scotland and one in London—and a delayed, taped feed broadcast to locations in New York and Washington, D.C. The United States Crime Victims Fund paid for travel for two family members per victim to attend the trial in the Netherlands for approximately a week, or to visit one of the closed-circuit sites. Hundreds of family members traveled to the Netherlands during the nine-month trial.
A large, private space for families next to the courtroom became known as the “safe haven.” “It was a lounge for the families to wait in before, during, and right after the trial,” Turman said. It was a place where family members were shielded from the inquiring media and where U.S. and Scottish personnel—some police investigators who had worked on the case years before—acted as family liaison officers, “providing support from the moment family members walked in the door.”
The day of the verdict was January 31, 2001.
“We hoped we would have at least several days’ notice so we could get families over for the verdict,” Turman said. Instead, the judges announced on January 30 that the verdict would be read the next day at 11 a.m.
Turman raced out of the courtroom. Her team began contacting families and making flight reservations. Airlines bent over backwards to book people on overnight flights. The Scots provided transportation from the airport, and Dutch authorities quickly ushered a couple hundred family members through customs, many leaving their baggage behind in the rush.
“I remember families saying they were in these vans with Scottish police officers driving 100 miles an hour down the autobahn trying to get them to the court,” Turman said. They made it to the courtroom 10 minutes before the verdicts were read.
Al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Fhimah was acquitted. In 2009, with al-Megrahi suffering from prostate cancer and believed to be near death, the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Justice issued what became a controversial ruling: They released him, allowing him to return to Libya to die. He survived for almost three more years.
“Probably the biggest regret I have is that we did not get everybody.”
Dick Marquise, retired FBI special agent
For Dick Marquise, who had been in charge of the FBI’s investigation, and other investigators who worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims, the trial’s results were decidedly mixed. “Probably the biggest regret I have is that we did not get everybody,” Marquise said recently. “A lot of the people that we believe were involved in this are deceased, but there are others we know are alive.” Still, he added, “the FBI has a very long memory.”
The victim assistance plan Turman and her team established for the trial would greatly inform the U.S. government’s future policy toward victims of terrorism and other federal crimes. “So much of what we ended up doing for 9/11 families and others has come from lessons learned from the Pan Am 103 families,” she said.
The level of collaboration at the trial between the FBI, Department of Justice, and other federal law enforcement agencies, along with Scottish partners—who had already set a remarkable example of compassion toward victims in the aftermath of the bombing—forged a connection between family members, investigators, and victim advocates that exists to this day. “It was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career,” Turman said. “We wanted to do justice by these families.”
Compassion, Humanity, Dignity
Within days of the bombing, and for years after, family members of victims from the United States and other countries made their way to Lockerbie. Some wanted to know exactly where their loved one’s body had been recovered. Others sought the comfort of the peaceful memorials erected to honor the victims. As time passed, many came to say thank you.
Scottish police officers and Lockerbie residents regularly volunteered to be guides and companions to these special visitors, and because of the grace and compassion shown to grieving strangers a long way from home, lasting bonds were formed.
The people of Lockerbie, said Alex Smith, a retired police officer from the town, “were fantastic.” In the face of their own tragedy, “they rallied and gave every assistance they possibly could.”
The night of the disaster, Smith was at home with his father in Sherwood Crescent, settled in for what was supposed to be a quiet evening. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash outside, and the neighborhood was ablaze. Within minutes of running outside with his father, their home had burned to the ground.
With so many first responders, including young soldiers, streaming in to assist with recovering the bodies and clearing the wreckage, there became an immediate need in Lockerbie for food. The townspeople began baking scones and cakes to supplement other food services and to show kindness to the workers who faced such a grim task.
“It was like war for them,” said Lockerbie resident Moira Shearer, speaking of the young soldiers who had never seen death before. “It was heartbreaking. They were only boys.”
Some of the Lockerbie women volunteered to clean soldiers’ uniforms, and that thoughtfulness turned into something more. The “laundry ladies,” as they became known, began to clean and carefully fold and package the recovered clothing of the victims so that the items could be returned to loved ones.
Thousands of articles of clothing and other personal effects were held in a warehouse known as the “property store.” Working in shifts, it would take the laundry ladies more than a year to clean everything. “There would be four groups of two, so that would be eight, in the morning, and it would change at lunchtime, so it would be around 16 volunteers coming in every day to start with,” said Elma Pringle. “Everybody wanted to do something to help.”
The emotional impact of handling all those personal items—a 2-year-old’s dress, wrapped Christmas presents, a pilot’s uniform—is an experience that has stayed with them.
“The amount of property on shelving and racks really brought home to me the scale of the numbers of people involved,” said Graeme Galloway, a police officer who joined the force when he was 21 years old, a few months before the Lockerbie disaster. As a new officer, he was assigned a 12-hour night shift securing the property store. At the end of his shift, he would see the laundry ladies arriving.
Working through the quiet overnight, said Galloway, who is near retirement after a 30-year career in law enforcement, “you get a lot of time to think—just to see the people’s lives you were looking at, the clothing, the suitcases … that used to belong to someone.”
And while one should never forget that the bombing was caused by an act of terror, “you can also see the goodness in the people who have to react,” Galloway added. Volunteers like the laundry ladies “were just people who wanted to do the wee bit, to put something back in, and I think we can never lose sight of that, that human kindness. It will always, in my view, outshine any terrorist act.”
Katie Berrell is a senior at Syracuse University, about the same age as her uncle, Steven Berrell, when he was killed on Pan Am Flight 103. “We have sweaters that my uncle bought for our family in perfect condition still,” she said, “because those women took the time to care, which is absolutely unbelievable.”
“Lockerbie is a small town,” said Alex Smith, “where nothing much happens, but neighbors tend to know each other.” Although he believes that most residents “would like to quietly get along with business and not make a fuss about it,” the townspeople responded to the disaster with amazing courage and dignity. “I’m quite proud of the Lockerbie people, actually.”
Dryfesdale Cemetery in Lockerbie contains a memorial to the victims of Pan Am Flight 103. The quiet and dignified sanctuary represents the grace and compassion shown by Lockerbie to the victims and their families.
Looking Back, Acting Forward
A month after the Pan Am Flight 103 attack, Syracuse University held a memorial service to honor its dead. The school’s chancellor, Melvin Eggers, announced the establishment of a Remembrance Scholarship fund and plans for a memorial on campus. He also made a vow 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.”
Thirty years later, the chancellor’s promise is being kept. Each year, the university names 35 Remembrance Scholars, one for every student who died. The scholars’ mission is to keep the memory of the victims alive, to perform acts of community service, including organizing an annual Remembrance Week on campus, and to raise awareness about terrorism. Today, present and former scholars number more than 1,000.
“Looking back and acting forward, that’s our motto,” said Katie Berrell, a Remembrance Scholar who represents her uncle. “This thing happened, and it’s our job to share it with other people in a meaningful way,” she said. “I think the bigger message is that this was an act of terrorism. And it’s still happening.”
In addition to the Remembrance Scholars, Syracuse hosts two Lockerbie Scholars each year from Scotland, a continuing reminder of the enduring bond between the university and the town. During Remembrance Week, all the scholars speak for the victims during a rose-laying ceremony at a memorial in the center of campus.
The Remembrance program, which includes the university’s extensive library collection of material related to the bombing and its aftermath, has become a central part of the school’s identity, said Kara Weipz, a Syracuse graduate whose brother, Richard Monetti, was killed on Pan Am Flight 103. Weipz is also president of the advocacy group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, Inc.
What Syracuse has done is “truly remarkable,” Weipz said. “This place is special. And it’s not just for the 35 they lost. They remember all 270 victims. It’s nice to come here,” she explained. “It feels like coming home.”
Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, Inc. holds one of its annual meetings during Remembrance Week, and every year FBI and Scottish investigators and prosecutors brief the group on the status of the case.
“The FBI has been a constant presence,” said Mary Kay Stratis, a New Jersey resident who lost her husband, Elia, on Pan Am Flight 103 and who is board chair of the victims’ group. “Many of them come up here for Remembrance Week. I find it encouraging,” she said, “that we are still on their minds, and their presence convinces me of that. It’s still an open case, and I know the FBI is still working with the Scottish Crown Office. There again, I find that very encouraging 30 years hence.”
The family group’s stated goals are to discover the truth about the bombing and to seek justice for their loved ones, to make sure the airline industry maintains and improves safety, to educate the public about Pan Am Flight 103, and to support one another.
“I don't know if many of us could have survived if we didn't have each other,” said Glenn Johnson, a Pennsylvania resident whose 21-year-old daughter, Beth Ann, was killed in the bombing. Johnson, who also serves on the board of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, Inc., has dedicated his life to doing good works in his daughter’s memory and to advocating for airline safety. “Over the years we have effected a lot of change for security,” he said. “I think that we have accomplished a lot, and that, to me, is how I have been able to handle it.”
With scholarships and endowments, Johnson’s wife, Carole, added, “we have been able to fulfill some of Beth Ann’s dreams for other people. We're trying to make our own little difference with the people in our lives.”
Weipz believes the goals of the family group and the university are essentially the same: to look back and forward at the same time to honor the victims. “We want to make sure we don’t forget them,” she said, “and that we live the way they lived—going after things, not being afraid—always looking forward and making the world a better place.”
Each year, Syracuse University holds a Remembrance Week to honor the victims of Pan Am Flight 103. Remembrance Scholar Katie Berrell stands in front of a chair symbolizing where her uncle, Steven, was sitting on the airplane. Thirty-five empty chairs are placed on campus every year to represent where each of the students was sitting when the plane exploded.
As they do every year on the anniversary of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, family members, along with investigators, prosecutors, and officials from Scotland, the FBI, and the Department of Justice, mark the occasion at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. There, on a hilltop next to a memorial cairn constructed of 270 stones—one for each of the victims and a permanent reminder of the devastation caused by terrorism—the names of the dead will be spoken.
December 21 is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. Although it is sadly symbolic that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 occurred on that day, it is perhaps more meaningful to consider that the responses to the tragedy—the kindnesses shown, the friendships made, the positive changes to aviation security, and law enforcement’s care for victims—continue to cast a very bright light into the world all these years later.
“Terrorism impacts all kinds of people, and it’s very personal and long lasting,” said Kathryn Turman, the FBI’s Victim Services Division assistant director. “Lives are forever changed. I’ve watched many Pan Am 103 families from the vantage point of almost 30 years, being able to see how they've managed, how they've coped, how they've suffered, but also how they've been able to bring meaning to a meaningless, senseless tragedy. I think that’s one of the things that I admire most about them.”
For the FBI, Pan Am Flight 103 was a watershed event. The bombing was the first major terrorist attack on Americans. “It was the first time the FBI was involved working with other agencies, with other governments, to investigate and eventually resolve a major international terrorist attack against Americans,” said Dick Marquise, the retired FBI agent who initially led the Bureau’s investigation and who still cares deeply about the case.
Building relationships, said Marquise, is one of the most fundamental lessons from the Pan Am Flight 103 investigation. “That’s the most important thing you can do. That’s the only way you are going to prevent attacks and solve attacks. Looking back, it was building those relationships that allowed us to come together to share information that led to an eventual solution in the case.”
“This has always been regarded as a joint investigation with our FBI colleagues,” said Stuart Cossar, the Police Scotland investigator. “We update each other on what both organizations are doing, we have regular face-to-face meetings, whether in the U.S. or Scotland, and we keep in contact.”
“If I had a message to tell the families and people around the world,” Cossar added, “it is that this is very much a live investigation, and we are hopeful that at some point in the future we will have potentially another trial and possibly another conviction.”
Both organizations share as much information as possible with the families—another lesson the FBI learned from the tragedy. “There are so many things we do now that are linked to lessons learned from Pan Am 103,” Turman said.
In 1991, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was the assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, and he was in charge of the Lockerbie investigation. He had visited the property store in Lockerbie where the victims’ personal effects were cared for. He met the families, and the compassion shown to them by the Scottish police made a deep impression on him. Shortly after Mueller became FBI Director in 2001—just days before the 9/11 attacks—he asked Turman to establish a new Office for Victim Assistance at the FBI.
“He said, ‘I want a professional victim assistance program. I want you to be able to do for victims, particularly terrorism victims, what you did with Pan Am 103,’” Turman recalled. “The approach was to make sure that families have information, make sure they have support, make sure we take their needs seriously and help them get through one of the most horrible things that can happen to somebody.”
“There are so many things we do now that are linked to lessons learned from Pan Am 103.”
Kathryn Turman, assistant director, FBI Victim Services Division
Today, it is standard procedure for what is now the FBI’s Victim Services Division to clean and return personal effects to victims of crimes. “I’ve never seen a law enforcement agency other than the Scottish police who did anything like this,” Turman said. “There were a lot of things we looked at with Pan Am 103 that formed the basis for where we went with the Victim Assistance Program in the Bureau.”
The Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, Inc. group was formed in 1989, shortly after the bombing. “We have had contact with a lot of different people in the FBI over the years,” said the group’s president, Kara Weipz, “and they have become almost like family members. The FBI has worked tirelessly through the years.”
Weipz spoke in public recently about Pan Am Flight 103, and there were people in the audience who were “shocked” when they learned the FBI investigation was still open. “I said, ‘no, they haven’t stopped, they won’t ever stop.’”
After 30 years, some of the founding members of the family group have died, others have grown old. But at Arlington National Cemetery this year, some of their grandchildren will be in attendance. “My children are now laying the groundwork as to how they want to approach this with their children,” said Mary Kay Stratis, whose husband died on Pan Am Flight 103.
And another generation will be poised to keep the memories alive.
“There’s a saying that the dead are still with us as long as someone speaks their name,” Turman said. “That’s one of the things that we do in the FBI, and we do well, is we speak their names. We continue to do that.”