STV’s John MacKay on following the Lockerbie story

The presenter was working at a radio station in 1988 when he took a call about the bombing.

Devastation caused by the bombing. <strong>PA</strong>
Devastation caused by the bombing. PA

It is a truth of journalism, maybe even of life itself, that the terrible stories shatter the mundane in the breath of a moment.

It was just after 7.20pm on the night of December 21, 1988.

The phone rang in the radio newsroom.

I probably sighed.

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I had just opened a book at my desk after getting the 7pm bulletin out of the way. It was Christmas party night, the newsroom was almost empty, and I didn’t expect to be disturbed until I made some check calls later in the evening.

The caller was from the town of Lockerbie telling me they had seen a massive explosion.

As I tried to process this and find the number of the local police office, the phone rang again.

This time it was the AA. One of their patrolmen had seen a plane coming down on a housing estate.

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The rest of that long, long night became a blur of phone calls and broadcasts.

The town of Lockerbie 30 years on. STV

I learned more watching experienced colleagues in those hours than any course could have taught me.

Initial information changed rapidly. It wasn’t the military jet first supposed, it was the London to Glasgow air shuttle. No, it wasn’t the shuttle, but a transatlantic flight from London to New York.

When I was broadcasting on Radio 4 news soon after, with a script battered out on a typewriter by my editor, most of the details were already confirmed. The plane involved. Where it was heading. How many passengers were on board. And that there was a “huge number” of casualties.

A colleague – a young Eddie Mair – dispatched to Lockerbie from Glasgow later recalled what he saw when he got there. “Front doors stood open, and Christmas lights twinkled. I recall seeing a woman’s body in a garden, but that sight made no sense to me.”

I’ve heard that sentiment repeated since. Seeing dead bodies out of place, in a garden, a field, a tree, made it seem unreal.

The tragedy of Lockerbie has been a vein running through my career.

The Sherwood Crescent memorial. STV
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Seeing the convicted bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

Meeting the relatives of victims.

Marking anniversaries and events in the town through the years.

But it’s only now, 30 years later, while working on an extended STV News report for Scotland Tonight that I feel I have a better understanding of what happened.

What emerges so strikingly is just how unfortunate the 11 victims on the ground were.

The iconic image of the disaster is the nose cone of Pan Am Flight 103 lying in a field across the road from Tundergarth Church.

Iconic image of the the nose cone lying in a field.

Driving four miles west from there you emerge from the countryside onto a brae, the town spread out beneath you. Behind you are fields. Before you is a field. Beyond the railway line and the motorway are more fields. Nestled in the folds of these fields is Lockerbie.

To the south, like a tail to the body of the town, are the final few houses.

This is where Sherwood Crescent lies.

This is where people had settled down in their homes that Wednesday evening.

And it is where they died without chance or warning.

There is some debate over whether the flight was delayed in leaving Heathrow, giving rise to the theory that the bomb was timed to explode over the Atlantic, leaving no evidence.

What is not in doubt is that when the bomb did explode at two minutes past seven, it tore the plane apart more than 30,000 feet above.

A second or two later and the wreckage would probably have come down in the fields.

With a bomb on board, the 259 souls on the plane were always doomed.

But for those who died on the ground – beneath a flight scheduled to last hours – in an area surrounded by miles of farmland – mere seconds and feet determined their fate.

For more on the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster tune into Scotland Tonight on STV at 10.30pm.


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