Lockerbie bombing: 25 years on from the day that shocked Britain

On the 25th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing, we take a look back at the tragedy which shocked the country

Aerial view of Lockerbie after the bombed plane fell onto Sherwood Crescent
Aerial view of Lockerbie after the bombed plane fell onto Sherwood Crescent

They are images that few old enough to register their full horror will ever forget.

The wreckage of a jumbo jet lying in a field, houses which looked like a hurricane had ripped through them and a giant crater in the earth.

The images were seen around the world by people busy readying themselves for Christmas a quarter of a century ago.

Exactly 25 years ago today, on December 21, 1988, Pan AM Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, after a bomb detonated on board.

The disaster claimed the lives of all 243 passengers and 16 air crew, with a further eleven people killed on the ground as wreckage from the Boeing 747 fell on Lockerbie.

Among those killed was Alistair Berkley, a 29 year old from Northumberland who worked as a law lecturer at the Polytechnic of Central London.

He, like the 242 other passengers, had boarded the flight from Heathrow that winter’s day four days before Christmas, to travel to John F. Kennedy International in New York.

Alistair, a Cambridge law graduate, was heading to the States to join his parents Barrie and Jean for the festive season, with the couple living in a flat in Manhattan.

The “Clipper Maid of the Seas” took off at 6.25pm.

At just before 7pm, the flight’s crew established two way radio contact with air traffic control (ATC.)

Just after the hour, the 747 approached the corner of the Solway Firth and crossed the coast.

Moments later, the jumbo failed to acknowledge a message from ATC. Its transmitter-responder then flickered off.

ATC tried to make contact with the flight, but there was no response.

At 7.02pm, a loud sound was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder.

A British Airways pilot, flying the Glasgow–London shuttle near Carlisle, called Scottish authorities to report that he could see a huge fire on the ground.

The explosion punched a hole on the left side of the plane’s fuselage.

As it descended, the wreckage broke into smaller pieces, with the section attached to the wings landing in residential Lockerbie, where the kerosene contained inside ignited. The resulting fireball destroyed several houses, and create a massive crater.

Of the 270 total fatalities, 189 were American citizens and 43 were British.

Barrie and Jean Berkley of Sandhoe, Hexham, whose son Alistair died in the Lockerbie bombing
Barrie and Jean Berkley of Sandhoe, Hexham, whose son Alistair died in the Lockerbie bombing

Speaking to The Journal on the tenth anniversary of the bombing in December 1998, Alistair’s dad, then an oil company executive in New York, remembered answering the phone in his office on the afternoon of December 21, 1988.

It was Jean, with whom he later moved to their present home at Sandhoe, near Hexham, to be near one of their two other sons who at the time of the move worked in Newcastle.

She had been watching the news on TV which was showing scenes from a Pan Am 747 crash in Scotland.

The plane had been en route to the US.

Which flight was their son booked on, she asked?

Barrie knew instantly the news was not good. His son had booked on Flight 103.

“Devastating,” was how Barrie summed up the emotions ten years on. Alistair’s father can not recall whether he contacted Pan Am in the immediate aftermath or whether the airline contacted him.

Two days later, Pan Am flew the Berkleys to London putting them up in a hotel with around 30 other families.

Carers appointed by Pan Am and officials from the US embassy kept the families abreast of what was happening.

Barrie recalled ten years on: “There were briefings about every couple of hours about what the situation was at Lockerbie and whether we could go up ourselves.

“Most people were discouraged from going straight away, being told it would impede the work of the rescuers.”

The Berkleys spent several days in the hotel, waiting to hear whether Alistair’s body had been found.

“We found that people who went to Lockerbie seemed to get priority on getting their relatives remains’ identified, so we went ourselves.”

The couple were taken around the scene by social workers and told there were difficulties in identifying the bodies because in many cases they had been separated from passports and other documents.

The Berkleys suggested forensic experts go to their son’s flat and collect fingerprints.

A RAF Chinook helicopter lands at the crash site while the grim search continues as rescuers probe the wreckage
A RAF Chinook helicopter lands at the crash site while the grim search continues as rescuers probe the wreckage

Barrie accompanied them and pointed out things Alistair was most likely to have handled.

“When you’re a whole week in a hotel with nothing to do but think about your circumstances, you get pretty desperate.

“We wanted to get out of that hotel. It was pretty traumatic, two or three times a day going to briefings with a lot of other distressed people, just waiting for our son’s remains to be identified. We just wanted out of that as quickly as possible.

“So I thought that if they wanted a positive method of identification, fingerprints would be the obvious thing.”

Within a day or two, the Berkleys were told their son’s body had been identified.

The couple decided they would not go and see Alistair.

“We decided that he was dead and that we’d rather have the memory of how we last saw him alive.”

Following a three-year joint investigation into the bombing by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, murder warrants were issued for two Libyan nationals in November 1991.

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi eventually handed over the two men for trial in the Netherlands in 1999 after protracted negotiations and UN sanctions.

Alistair Berkley from Northumberland, who was killed in the Lockerbie bombing
Alistair Berkley from Northumberland, who was killed in the Lockerbie bombing

In 2001 Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was jailed for the bombing.

Two years later, Gaddafi accepted responsibility for Lockerbie and paid compensation to the families of the victims, although he maintained he had not ordered the attack.

In August 2009, al-Megrahi was released from prison by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

He eventually died in May last year.

The death of the only person ever convicted of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing caused the Berkleys to renew calls for a full inquiry into the attack, something they have battled for since 1988, Jean having acted as co-ordinator of the UK Families Flight 103 group.

It it not the only cause they have supported.

With the compensation money they received following Alistair’s murder, Barrie and Jean established The Alistair Berkley Charitable Trust to support groups in East Africa that fight for the land rights of women.

It is something Alistair, who had taught in Uganda, believed in passionately.

Barrie told The Journal in 2011: “The way in which we live with that loss is to try and find things that he would’ve liked us to have supported...

“Doing this helps us to think his life was not just lost for nothing.”

The couple have also been involved with humanism since 1986, with Barrie honorary president of North East Humanists.

The Berkleys could not be contacted to contribute to this feature.

But their feelings on this the 25th anniversary of Lockerbie will no doubt be similar to those of every other.

On December 21, 2010, Jean told The Journal: “Today we are thinking about Alistair as we always have done, trying to do the sort of things he would have approved of.

“We know that if he had been alive today he would not have let a case like this drop, just as we will not let it drop.

“We will never give up fighting for a full inquiry into Lockerbie.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
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