Looking Back at the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103

Lockerbee, Scotland, where the flight went down

Peter Chadwick LRPS / Getty Images

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 on the ground. Though it was almost immediately evident that a bomb had caused the disaster, it took more than eleven years to bring anyone to trial. What happened to the plane? Why would someone plant a bomb on Flight 103? Why did it take eleven years to have a trial?

The Explosion

Pan Am Flight 103 taxied out of the gate at Heathrow Airport in London at 6:04 p.m. on December 21, 1988, four days before Christmas. The 243 passengers and 16 crew members were preparing themselves for a relatively long flight to New York. After taxying for a few minutes, Flight 103, on a Boeing 747, took off at 6:25 p.m. They had no idea that they only had 38 more minutes to live.

By 6:56 p.m., the plane had reached 31,000 feet. At 7:03 p.m., the plane exploded. Control had just been issuing Flight 103's clearance to start its oceanic segment of their journey to New York when Flight 103's blip went off their radar. Seconds later the one large blip was replaced with multiple blips traveling downwind.

For the residents of Lockerbie, Scotland, their nightmare was just about to begin. "It was like meteors falling from the sky," described resident Ann McPhail ( Newsweek, Jan. 2, 1989, pg. 17). Flight 103 was over Lockerbie when it exploded. Many residents described the sky lighting up and a large, deafening roar.

They soon saw pieces of the plane as well as pieces of bodies landing in fields, in backyards, on fences, and on rooftops. Fuel from the plane was already on fire before it hit the ground; some of it landed on houses, making the houses explode.

One of the plane's wings hit the ground in the southern area of Lockerbie. It hit the ground with such impact that it created a crater 155 feet long, displacing approximately 1500 tons of dirt. The nose of the airplane landed mostly intact in a field about four miles from the town of Lockerbie. Many said the nose reminded them of a fish's head cut off from its body.

Wreckage was strewn over 50 square miles. Twenty-one of Lockerbie's houses were completely destroyed and eleven of its residents were dead. Thus, the total death toll was 270 (the 259 aboard the plane plus the 11 on the ground).

Why Was Flight 103 Bombed?

Though the flight held passengers from 21 countries, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 hit the United States especially hard. Not only because 179 of the 259 people on board were Americans, but because the bombing shattered America's sense of safety and security. Americans, in general, felt trodden upon by the unknown danger of terrorism.

Though there is no doubt of the horror of this crash, this bomb, and its aftermath was just the most recent in a string of similar events.

As revenge for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub where two U.S. personnel were killed, President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya's capital Tripoli and the Libyan city of Benghazi in 1986. Some people think that bombing Pan Am Flight 103 was in retaliation for these bombings.

In 1988, the USS Vincennes (a U.S. guided missile cruiser) shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board. There is little doubt that this caused as much horror and sorrow as the explosion on Flight 103. The U.S. government claims that the USS Vincennes mistakenly identified the passenger plane as an F-14 fighter jet. Other people believe that the bombing over Lockerbie was in retaliation for this disaster.

Right after the crash, an article in Newsweek stated, "It would be up to George Bush to decide whether, and how, to retaliate" (Jan. 2, 1989, pg. 14). Does the United States have any more right to "retaliate" than do the Arab countries?

The Bomb

After investigators had interviewed over 15,000 people, examined 180,000 pieces of evidence, and researched in more than 40 countries, there is some understanding as to what blew up Pan Am Flight 103.

The bomb was made out of the plastic explosive Semtex and was activated by a timer. The bomb was hidden in a Toshiba radio-cassette player which in turn, was inside a brown Samsonite suitcase. But the real problem for investigators has been who put the bomb in the suitcase and how did the bomb get on the plane?

The investigators believe they received a "big break" when a man and his dog were walking in a forest about 80 miles from Lockerbie. While walking, the man found a T-shirt which turned out to have pieces of the timer in it. Tracing the T-shirt as well as the maker of the timer, investigators felt confident they knew who bombed Flight 103: Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah.

Eleven Years of Waiting

The two men whom investigators believe are the bombers were in Libya. The United States and the United Kingdom wanted the men tried in an American or British court, but Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi refused to extradite them.

The U.S. and the U.K. were angry that Qaddafi would not turn over the wanted men, so they approached the United Nation's Security Council for help. To pressure Libya into turning over the two men, the Security Council imposed sanctions over Libya. Though hurting financially from the sanctions, Libya continually refused to turn over the men.

In 1994, Libya agreed to a proposal that would have the trial held in a neutral country with international judges. The U.S. and the U.K. refused the proposal.

In 1998, the U.S. and the U.K. offered a similar proposal but with Scottish judges rather than international ones. Libya accepted the new proposal in April 1999.

Though the investigators were once confident that these two men were the bombers, there proved to be many holes in the evidence.

On January 31, 2001, Megrahi was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fhimah was acquitted.

On August 20, 2009, the UK gave Megrahi, who suffered from terminal prostate cancer, a compassionate release from prison so that he could go back to Libya to die amongst his family. Nearly three years later, on May 20, 2012, Megrahi died in Libya.