December 21 1988 – Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes Over Lockerbie, Scotland

December 21 1988 – Pan Am Flight 103 Explodes Over Lockerbie, Scotland
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just shy of an hour into a long transatlantic flight between London’s Heathrow Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, Pan Am Flight 103 disappeared from radar on December 21, 1988 with 259 passengers and crew on board. Tearing apart on the 31,000-foot fall to the Scottish countryside below, the pieces of the Boeing 747 took the lives of an additional 11 people.

Sections of the bombed aircraft would appear on television all over the world the next morning. Within hours, tales from local residents about streaks of fire dropping through the crisp darkness of the Scottish sky circulated as investigators scrambled to the scene. The bright flash and ear-shattering sound of the detonation over Lockerbie gave way to fragments of twisted metal and dismembered bodies plummeting to the ground below.

The quiet town within miles of Scotland’s border with England was now the center of a nightmare. Officials combed the countryside for wreckage, finding parts from the 747 spread across a 50-square-mile area that included homes and farmland. In addition to the 259 people on the flight, nearly a dozen Scots were killed by debris and hundreds more suffered property damage. (One of the wings, for example, moved 1,500 tons of earth as it tore a 155-foot-long crevice in a field.)

Looking across the passenger rolls, authorities discovered almost two-thirds of those on board were Americans. Rattled in a way they would not be until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, authorities instantly created new regulations for travel from the Middle East and Europe. Theories about the origin of the bombing began flying in from all corners — and many persist today — but it seemed as if Iran and Libya were the most likely sources. The US had, after all, mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner just months before and bombed strategic Libyan assets in 1986.

In a matter of weeks, representatives from Scoland Yard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fanned out across the globe to gather evidence. Conducting thousands of interviews and using the best in forensic science to pull together more than 180,000 individual items related to the explosion, they determined a brown suitcase in the cargo hold had contained a timer connected to plastic explosives. Further research pointed toward Libyan citizens Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah as the two responsible for sneaking the bomb through Heathrow and onto the aircraft.

When the discovery was announced in 1991, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi immediately denied American and British requests for his countrymen to be released for trial. After extensive negotiations about the nature and location of the trial, not to mention heavy economic sanctions from the United Nations, he relented in 1999. In mid-2000, al-Megrahi and Fhimah went to trial, but only the former received a guilty conviction for his role in the attack.

Sentenced to life in prison, al-Megrahi was later released from a Scottish penitentiary in August 2009 due to terminal cancer. More than two decades after the attack, Gaddafi’s involvement in the crime is still up in the air: he repeatedly denied making the final call — even as he paid out compensation to victims’ families in 2003 — but others claimed he gave the order as the country erupted into civil war in 2011.

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