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Remembering the Lockerbie tragedy
LONDON (CNN) -- The crash of Pan Am 103 had turned the small Scottish farming town of Lockerbie into an inferno. One whole neighborhood was in flames. That was where the fuel tanks hit, we learned ... much later. Other fires were scattered here and there, blazing into the sky and glittering up in reflections from the wet streets.
Amid the chaos and confusion, emergency workers did their jobs, it seemed, by rote.
The faces of the townspeople and firemen were drawn with the shock of it, no one knowing what had really happened to their little town. Each feared that some of the neighbors they had seen only minutes or hours before were dead. As it turned out, 11 residents of Lockerbie were killed on the ground as debris, body parts and fire rained from the sky when the ill-fated Boeing 747 exploded in mid-air. None of the 259 passengers and crew survived.
We arrived by charter plane from London a couple of hours after the news came out, contending the logistics of hauling camera and sound gear, finding a car to rent, trying to push a Stone-Age cell phone call through the packed circuits.
Most people told us they had been eating dinner or watching pre-Christmas television when they heard -- they didn't know -- something like a train going by, or a bomb going off.
It was the evening of December 21, 1988. Pan American Flight 103 was on its way to New York from Frankfurt, after a stop at London's Heathrow Airport. Lockerbie had the bad luck to be at the end of the trajectory when a bomb blew the plane apart at 31,000 feet.
Luck had played a part in why some of the 259 people on board had made or had missed the flight.
And luck, in a way, was on the side of the police and investigators who were pouring into town.
If the bomb had exploded a couple of minutes later, Pan Am 103 would have been out over the Atlantic. The bodies, the debris, and the clues would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. And the trial in the Netherlands just would not have happened.
In the morning we watched the cockpit section of the "Maid of the Seas" being winched out of the mud at Tundergarth, just outside Lockerbie.
British soldiers in combat fatigues and plumed caps were fanning out across the countryside, marking sites, making notes. The dismal job of collecting evidence came later.
The wreckage was strewn over 850 square miles. One searcher told of finding a body, absolutely intact, sitting seemingly calm, still strapped into his airplane seat.
But investigators said those on board would have died quickly, even before the jagged metal, the slipstream, the impact, dismembered them.
Scottish police took their time with information, as is the way with their careful, stiff-backed legal system. For days, genially and politely, they told us almost nothing.
Thousands of bits of Boeing 747 were taken to a warehouse and pieced together, until they made what almost looked like an aircraft. The forensic investigation was massive and meticulous.
Christmas was called off that year in Lockerbie as the bodies came in from the morgue to a local church, and the relatives came in grief and in fury.
Within a few days, a group of Lockerbie women, sensing they would feel better if they did something, started dealing with the clothes and possessions.
They carefully washed everything, ironed the clothing, and that which could be identified was returned to the relatives.
'Pan Am 103': Parents of one victim tell their tale
Lockerbie trial briefing unit
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