Life after Lockerbie: Legacy indelible 35 years after terror attack on plane

Libyan terrorists exploded a bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, killing 270 people

UK marks 35th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing

UK marks 35th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing
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Lori Carnochan was only six months old when the worst terror attack in Britain happened 35 years ago, just outside her family's front door.

The lives of everyone around her were changed forever when Libyan terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over the tiny Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people.

The atrocity saw one man imprisoned, the regime of Muammar Qaddafi blamed and a continuing hunt for justice spanning decades.

For Ms Carnochan, growing up in the aftermath meant she has seen first-hand the effects stamped on her community by that fateful night of December 21, 1988.

Now, working for the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie Legacy Foundation in the UK, she took The National on a tour of the crash site.

Bracing against the sleet, she gently placed her hand on the gravestone of John Cummock at Tundergarth Church and drew attention to his epitaph: "Died aboard Pan Am 103."

She then pointed to a field full of sheep just metres away.

“That’s where the nose cone of the plane came down, that’s where John was found,” Ms Carnochan said.

Her mother was working as a nurse the night it happened.

“Her job was to prepare the beds in the expectation they would be overwhelmed following the crash,” Ms Carnochan said.

“She waited for the injured, but none came – there were no survivors.”

The plane was destroyed at 7.03pm, 27 minutes after leaving London’s Heathrow Airport, when a bomb hidden in a stereo exploded as it headed for New York, killing all 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground.

Libya claimed responsibility for the atrocity in 2003.

The nose cone of the plane crashed to the ground in what became a world-famous image of the disaster – and formed part of the wreckage that spanned 2,188 square kilometres.

Victoria Cummock, from South Florida, was just 35 and had three young children when she lost her husband John in the tragedy.

She realised it was his flight after crash footage showed the briefcase she had bought him at the front of the wreckage.

The businessman was travelling home to America for Christmas when the terror attack happened and he was found in the nose cone along with 17 others.

“I cannot say I was ever the same after,” Ms Cummock, founder and chief executive of the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie Legacy Foundation, told The National.

“If something like this happens you cannot expect to live happily ever after.

“Sadly, Lockerbie isn’t taught in schools, a whole generation of people do not remember the disaster.

"This attack has been forgotten yet it was the second-worst terror incident in US history and the worst to happen in Britain.”

Today, a small stone building of remembrance stands in the churchyard filled with the victims’ pictures and family memories as a result of the foundation’s work and that of the Tundergarth Kirks Trust.

Inside, Ms Carnochan turns the pages of an open book of remembrance that contains messages of love from around the world. The walls are lined with the flags of the 21 countries from where the victims came.

"In the first tribute book to victims, over 100 people were left out and there were no photos," Ms Carnochan said.

"So we searched for pictures of them all and now you can look at their faces and find out about who they were.

"Before you may never have known Robert McCollum was a professor running development programmes in Nigeria and was returning home after a meeting with Unesco, or that Martin Apfelbaum was a rare-stamp dealer.

"All these people cannot be forgotten.”

Ms Cummock's husband was missing from the first book and she has devoted her life to ensuring he and the other victims are never forgotten.

“We wanted every victim identified and remembered. It has been a Herculean task to identify the victims. This happened before the dawn of the internet,” she said.

“It has been a labour of love.”

Museum plans

Ms Carnochan plays a folk song called Girl in the Garden written about a local woman who had found one of the young victims' purses in her backyard and strived to reunite relatives with their belongings.

"We had so many hometown heroes in the aftermath and we want them and the victims to be remembered, so next year we are hoping to create a museum in the churchyard," she said.

They are planning to transform the remains of a 17th century church on the grounds into a memorial museum.

“When I went to visit the 9/11 memorial I was shocked that there was only a small mention of Lockerbie," Ms Cummock said.

"This attack has been forgotten. We are at risk of it being erased so we decided enough was enough.

“The foundation not only wanted to honour the victims but the thousands of people who helped. We have created living memory pages for them and now we are going to create a museum.

“Lockerbie was one of the largest disasters on the globe. Every story is important and it is a privilege for us to hear them and they will all be in our memorial museum. We are really excited to do this 35 years later.

“This was such an impactful event with global ramifications. We cannot let it be forgotten.”

Hometown heroes rallied to help

The sleepy town and its outlying villages were shaken to their core when the bomb exploded 9.5km in the skies above, making it the largest crime scene in history.

Streets were destroyed where parts of the plane fell, fires littered the countryside and gardens and fields were covered in bodies, belongings and debris.

A farmer found the body of a 20-month-old in his field, which he handed over to a policeman.

Within hours of the crash 300 firemen and more than 1,000 police officers were at the scene.

“People thought it was snowing but it was ash falling from the sky,” Ms Carnochan said.

“Everyone came to help. Farmers' wives baked for the rescue teams and even knitted pads for the search dogs’ feet. It was a huge display of humanity.”

Out of horror came heroism, as local residents rallied to help.

The Laundry Ladies

One group of women became known as "the laundry ladies" after they spent months washing and sorting through 11,000 personal items to ensure victims' effects were sent back to families after discovering the US would not fund it.

“I got my husband’s clothes back laundered, it was odd as he never brought them back clean,” Ms Cummock said.

“Then I discovered this small group of women had done it for us.”

Read more about the laundry ladies in this gallery

Students killed

More than 5,200km away in New York, the impact of the disaster was felt particularly hard at Syracuse University.

It lost 35 students who had been on secondments and were returning to their families for Christmas.

Kara Weipz was 15 when her brother Richard Moretti, a journalism and politics student, was killed.

She has now taken over the baton from her parents to continue to fight for justice for the victims and is president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103.

“Anniversaries become surreal to me," Ms Weipz told The National. "I’m 50 now and I was 15 when it happened. This has been my life as I have grown up in this tragedy.

“It’s my second time being chairman. I’ve just picked up the torch for people in their 80s who cannot do it any more.

"I have learnt from them all, I have grown up with it from my parents … I’m trying to carry on their work for them to bring them a sense of peace. I hope I’m achieving that.

“I’m in awe of everything we have accomplished and the changes that have been made, from simple things in the US like victims’ names not being released until the families have been notified.

"We have made changes to airport security and how victims are treated, not just in the US but in the UK too.

“We have enacted a number of different changes considering we are just a small number of people doing this. I talk to students all the time to tell them they have a voice and can make change.

"One of the things I share is my brother’s memory and the legacy that we can take something terrible and we can make change and make the world a better place.”

A memorial wall stands at the entrance to Syracuse University, where every year a remembrance service is held.

The then chancellor Melvin Eggers vowed to never let the students be forgotten and created 35 remembrance scholar places to continue their legacy.

Kelly Rodoski was a student at the time of the tragedy and returned to work at the university where she manages the scholars.

“I remember it very vividly, I was in my first year. It was a shock to everybody,” she told The National.

“Over the years we have done many things. We have a large memorial here, it is a wall to our gateway.

"We have a remembrance week with a candle light vigil during which we have 35 chairs in our quad for each of the students. It is a stark reminder of what we lost, it brings the message home.

“Our mission for remembrance is to look back. Our scholars were not born when this happened and it is something we really need to educate people about.

“We have a robust archive of the crash here, with some of the students’ personal effects from poetry, a sweatshirt, a baseball cap and even photos from the camera roll from one of the students that was recovered from the wreckage.

"It is very poignant and a reminder to all of us these were people who studied with us who lost their lives.

“It is still something that affects all of us. These were great kids living the time of their lives and were just coming home for Christmas. It was shocking. Sometimes it just feels like yesterday.”

Fight for justice: Who are the suspects?

In 2003 Libya claimed responsibility for the attack and to date only one person has been convicted.

Former Libyan intelligence operatives Abdel Baset Ali Al Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah stood trial for their roles.

It resulted in Mr Fhimah being acquitted and Al Megrahi convicted and jailed for life in 2001.

He was subsequently released in 2009 on compassionate grounds while terminally ill with cancer, and died in Libya in 2012.

Read more about the suspects in this gallery

Last year the US extradited Abu Agila Mohammad Masud from Libya and charged him with making the bomb. He is expected to stand trial next year.

Ms Weipz said it has been a difficult fight to get to this stage.

“The news of his arrest last year was such a shock," she said. "It was so close to the anniversary and we were all numb. It brought up a lot of emotions.

“Now, we are about to embark on another trial.

“You never know what will bring someone else peace but I hope that the fight for 18 months to get custody of Mr Masud will help.

“It has been one of the toughest things I have been involved with, it has been a different fight.

"It was emotional and it was frustrating with certain parts of the US government and there were parts we couldn’t control.

"There was a lot of back and forth. It was something that has been 35 years in the making and it will be very interesting to see the whole trial.”

Her fight for justice is far from over as she battles with politicians in the US to allow relatives from the 21 different countries affected to watch the trial remotely as American cases are not televised.

“We have waited 35 years and every family deserves to be able to watch this,” Ms Weipz said.

Ms Cummock believes holding people accountable will bring more comfort.

“This was an intentional act of mass murder,” she said.

“We know just one person did not bring down a plane.”

A lesson in human kindness

After her husband's death, Ms Cummock joined the Red Cross, helping victims of other terror attacks including the Oklahoma bombing and September 11, and has worked to implement changes to aviation safety.

“Lockerbie taught the world a lesson in humanity and human kindness, and inspired me to do years of work on air disasters and acts of terror,” she said.

“I have been involved in any air disaster involving a US carrier since 1988 and I have also worked with victims' families.

“I know if I had died and not John he would have done the same things the foundation is doing.

“He would also want to find out the truth about what happened, why people were not protected, how it must never happen again and holding people to account.”

Ms Cummock and Ms Weipz will be at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia at the Lockerbie Memorial Cairn – which consists of 270 blocks of red Scottish sandstone from a quarry near Lockerbie – to commemorate the 35th anniversary this week.

“I will be laying a wreath with 21 flags in it for the victims of the 21 different countries,” Ms Cummock said.

“My hope for this coming year is for the trial to start and work on the memorial museum to honour the thousands of survivors will commence, so we can make this something that will celebrate aspiring stories of hope and resilience.

'"The legacy of Lockerbie will live on. It might be 35 years but they will never be forgotten.”

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:13 PM