Thirty years ago, a young man trying to do the best job he could was offered cash by another young man also trying to do the best job that he could.
Both of these young men, stained by man’s inhumanity, were standing in a place of horror and amazement, a place of anger and compassion. Both of these young men were to grow up that day.
That first young man was me the morning after Pan Am flight 103 exploded over the town of Lockerbie. The other, a young journalist clearly eager to get the best images to impress his editor. It was clear from his accent that he wasn’t from north of the border.
It’s strange that this memory returns every year at this time. Along with many other memories of that day this one hits me square in the face every year. By the way, I didn’t take any money and the journalist was promptly sent on his way.
They say we can recall events in our past which have affected us emotionally. I can say, that without doubt, that in my 30 years as a police officer what I witnessed in the town of Lockerbie on the 22nd December haunted me then and still does to this day. Mars bars are also a memory. I will explain later.
On this fateful day I was a 20-year-old probationer police officer. If I was honest with myself, I was a very young 20-year-old. As a police officer I was very much still, ‘wet behind the ears’. I was a fast learner and in the previous 18 months I had gained a lot of experience in a career that I loved. Nothing, however could have prepared me for my Lockerbie experience.
During the evening of the 21st December I remember sitting in a bar in Edinburgh having a coffee. Remember these were the days before Costa and Starbucks. I was coming to the end of a week of early shifts. I had one more shift to work and that was it. The team Christmas doo was booked, and we were ready to head up to the city after the shift the next day. In the bar I can remember seeing the television screens. There was blue lights and fire, a lot of fire.
The town of Lockerbie was not a place I had visited. I didn’t really know where it was. Quickly the noise of the bar distracted me from the television screens. A short time after I headed home, to bed. The alarm clock was set for 4.30am.
I remember my bedroom door opening and my mum saying me that work was on the phone. That was strange. I had received calls from work in the past but not at 3am. The message was clear, get up, get dressed and get to Fettes as soon as possible. I was told I was heading to Lockerbie.
I arrived at Fettes within the half hour. I saw all of my team. They were all talking about a plane crash. It was at this time I made the connection between the previous night and this moment. The mood was one of nervous excitement. Us cops have the ability to use humour to cover up for our fears. I saw it a lot in my 30 years. I saw it that morning. We boarded a coach and headed south. I recall that the journey was quiet, very quiet. I think we all suspected that we were in for a long shift. I think we all realised that this was a day that we would never forget.
On arriving in the town, we headed for an initial briefing. The Chief Constable of Dumfries and Galloway led the briefing. This was getting very real. I recall being told that this was indeed going to be long day and our role was to protect certain sites in and around the town.
Along with a group of others we were told to head to Sherwood Crescent where the main part of the plane had crashed.
As soon we left the briefing, we were heading down the main street of Lockerbie. Almost immediately it became all to clear that a plane had indeed crashed. There was debris everywhere. What struck me on this short walk was what I saw in some gardens. You know when you cut turf with a spade and the grass seems to follow the contour of the spade. There were large pieces of metal in these gardens. The impact they had when crashing to the ground cut deep into the grass. There were great chunks of grass turf perfectly and cleanly cut by the landing metal. It’s funny what you remember. Even today when I’m cutting turf myself, I’m reminded of this day.
Entering Sherwood Crescent, I felt nervous. I felt sick. There were houses standing with little or no damage. Then there was this hole. By a hole, I mean a crater. It was massive. Very quickly I realised that a house once stood here. Sherwood crescent was a place where you lived or died. After a shorter briefing we were allocated patrol areas. Our main duty was to protect Sherwood Crescent and to log any items of interest that we may come across.
Within five minutes my notebook was out. There was property strewn everywhere and body parts scattered all around. I remember using my notebook to record items, noting where they were found. I drew pictures of the body parts in my notebook. I’m not an artist, these drawings weren’t going to win me any prize, but I knew it was important. I remember in 2000 when I was working at the Scottish Police College as an instructor, using my Lockerbie experience to teach new officers about the importance of evidence gathering and use of the police notebook.
It was mid-morning when I had my experience with the journalist. I remember being in a back garden. The garden backed onto the petrol station that was on the main street. There was little, or no fence and I remember thinking, that I would have to keep any eye on this area. That’s when I met the journalist.
I saw the camera and then the cash. He didn’t have to say anything to me. I just turned him around and politely told him to show some respect. I’ve read since that Lockerbie was a learning curve for many in the media. Whilst there was a need to report there was also a need for people to be left alone. Apparently the less local the media the less concern they seemed to have for those who had been affected.
Behind me were the remains of loved ones. I had a duty to protect these poor souls I also didn’t want their families from seeing these distressing images. After a while I became quite numb to the bodies around me. It was the possessions that then started to have an effect on me. I found jewellery, wallets, bags, clothing and Christmas presents. We were three days before Christmas. That was hard.
I remember finding a US passport. This was important I thought. It was identification. I opened the passport and saw it belonged to a young American female. She was the same age as me. I remember a few days after, reading a newspaper and seeing her image. As I said, us cops have a way of trying to block out the stuff that hurts us most. Seeing the image in the newspaper was hard. I was on my own when I saw it. A lot of emotion started to come out.
Many of the dead were young students from the US returning home for Christmas. Their families would have been waiting at the airport for them. They were my age and had their whole lives ahead of them. I often think what contribution this young female and the other students would have had on the world if she and the others hadn’t boarded that plane.
It wasn’t all bad that day. In many ways I connected more with my colleagues. We shared an experience that many others thankfully will never have to experience. We looked out for each other that day. The older officers looked out for us probationers. We had their back as well.
The resilience of the community also shone through. Remember I said that another memory was Mars Bars. From the minute we arrived in the town we were looked after. Locals and other volunteers began making sure that all of the emergency services were looked after. Mars Bars were clearly plentiful and alongside the endless cups of tea the Mars Bar was king.
I met a few of the residents of Sherwood Crescent that day. Despite what had happened they looked out for us. Rather than heading to a central point for refreshing I spent time with residents in their homes. You could tell they were in shock. They had survived whilst their neighbours perished. Even with this loss it was clear much of the empathy was directed to those on the plane.
This compassion shines through every year at this time. If you watch any of the many documentaries on Lockerbie, you will see this. People from another country died in their town. The residents felt a sense of responsibility to make sure respect was given to those people who had been on the Pan Am flight.
Thirty years have passed since my Lockerbie experience. Like many of my colleagues we probably experienced something that many officers will never experience again. The years haven’t diminished the memories. They come back to me every year. I’m glad that we are still talking about this event. We need to remember those who perished but we should also never forget the humanity that is in us all. Lockerbie presented the worst and the best in who we are.
To the residents from Lockerbie and those from Pam Am 103 your memory lives on.