Digital Ischemia


1989 – Present

Lockerbie tragedy series starts at Wednesday 21 December 1988

Although this contains no graphic description, you may find it distressing.



Father: I was invited to speak at a seminar at a hotel in Kinross. It was a seminar of emergency service professionals involved in the Lockerbie response. There a policeman showed reconstructed maps of the aeroplane’s path coming up the middle of the country and screwing around anticlockwise.

Father: There was a very strong wind blowing from the west, because it blew papers back all the way across to Northumberland. A phone bill from a house that had been blown up was found thirty miles away in Northumberland. So the plane was coming up the middle, it exploded and turned left, then it was being blown back in again. It actually flew over us just to the west of north. It wasn’t flying on a straight line; it was turning round on a curve. It landed facing an east-south-east direction.

Me: So it had turned in the air anticlockwise and fallen back down heading in a south-east direction?

Father: Somewhere in that curve it had dropped an engine which probably made it turn more so. I don’t know which engine it was, but an engine dropped into the middle of the road in Lockerbie.

Me: I have no concept of how quickly such a thing would fall, from exploding to impact on the ground. Seconds?

Father: Minutes.

Mother: Having worked 8am-8pm for weeks and kept the family going too I realised I could do more than looking after the family and started looking for a job.  After 17 years at home I had a lot to prove, to myself, to your father, to everyone.  Not an easy journey with children with emotional and behavioural disorders, proving the benefits of therapeutic interaction, which eventually led to my taking students and teaching junior medical staff who hadn’t a clue how to talk to children.   A creative and satisfying period, and I got paid..!   So something good came out of it all for me personally, as well as the people in Lockerbie and around the world I was able to help.  Regained my own self-esteem and confidence.

Me: Around Easter, the town community of Middelburg in Utrecht, Netherlands, generously offered a couple dozen Lockerbie school kids a few days’ holiday there during the summer, staying with local families. A friend persuaded me to sign up. Anxiety immediately hit me that I couldn’t cope with such an adventure. I hoped that because we’d added our names beyond the allocated slots we’d be too late. I was horrified to find we had been found additional accommodation in a hotel. The overnight ferry journey was stressful as the other kids were too noisy to let me sleep. I wandered up to the ‘Pullman’ seats deck and tried to lay across a few but the arm rests were too uncomfortable. One of the two group leaders checked I was OK. Daily trips I remember were: picturesque town tours including some unfortunate kid dropping their camera down a well, a coach trip to the flood barriers, and into Belgium for shopping with a stop for pastries, a beach, and pancakes with capers or apple. Mostly I remember my social awkwardness, with generous strangers and the classmates I never engaged with. One day for some reason I chose to latch on to a family and their established guest with whom I had no rapport for a beach trip rather than stay with the group leader for crazy golf and pancakes.

Me: A year later, on the anniversary, my sister and I were sitting on my bed chatting. Our mother appeared in the doorway, reverently holding a burning candle in a jam jar, and cloaked in melodrama.
“Don’t you know what time it is?”
As usual articulation escaped me, although my sister managed some retort. I brooded in sullenness. I wanted to say, “yes, and I don’t need a set time to remember; I remember every day. In any case you have the time wrong!”
I was left feeling our innocent banter had been guiltily cut off. My way of remembering, of respecting, was inadequate, insolent even.


Mother: Winter red sunrises at 9am on my way to work caused me to catch my breath, they were just like the glow of the burning fuselage in Sherwood Crescent.  I couldn’t look at a full moon either for many months as there was one on 21st December 1988.

Me: Fifteen months later, Easter holiday, during my sixth year at high school, I was working at essays and computer projects. One night, lying in bed, waiting to sleep, my thoughts exploded in escalating morbid catastrophes. I became panicky about these threats and why I was suddenly thinking of them. I waylaid my father on a nighttime trundle for reassurance. He explained to me about anxiety and going beyond alert. He advised a couple of days off study and some fresh air. I don’t think anyone connected that to the tragedy.

Mother: One of the things I have found, and noticed in others who have faced major disasters like Lockerbie, is that, at the time, all feeling and emotion is suspended.  You just get on with whatever you can do, where you are.   I have heard that emotion comes later, when whatever awful thing has happened becomes real.   It didn’t happen to me until much later, I was too busy working in Lockerbie.   What I felt was that this thing was a great evil that had fallen on the town, and we had to work to counteract it with great love and compassion for those still alive who were affected by it.

Me: I never visited the Sherwood Crescent site, the memorial garden or the cemetery. What started as fear of distress became a taboo about not indulging any gory fascination or wallowing in melodrama.

Father: The major component of my relief from PTSD occurred eighteen months later in the south of France, during that holiday. At that point I suddenly realised that I had resurfaced, that I’d not been right for eighteen months, that I’d been struggling along. In that different atmosphere, surrounded by all the natural beauty, I relaxed and I moved on.

Father: The grieving process which I remember experiencing when my father died. I had the standard three days leave when the old man died, to get him cremated and dealt with and sorted out and see mother OK… And I had to carry on… And then three months later it suddenly clicked: I had surfaced from it; it was finished.

Me: I developed my own melodrama: from starting university, I decided never to volunteer that I had lived at Lockerbie, adamant that I didn’t want to get any social ‘mileage’ from that event. Surprisingly few people have asked sufficiently probing questions for me to admit it. A couple times I have lapsed in moments of neediness, and always regretted it. It always felt dishonourable and sensation-seeking or celebrity-craving.


Sister: Three or four years later, I was working in the florist, and that pal’s mum was working in there for a bit as well. She mentioned about not having any photos of the kids. I’d completely forgotten about the plane crash, so I asked, “why have you not got any photos of the kids? Did you not take any?” She just went, “no, they were all trashed when the house got burnt.” I was like gulping, “oh, yeh…”

Me: A witty housemate tried to generically deride my hometown with the quip that it had “a good cemetery”. Mortification and apology instantly followed. I took much longer to realise the faux pas and certainly felt no offence.

Me: Five years on, a flatmate was studying forensic medicine. This sounded fascinating, if grisly, so I sat in on a lecture, having checked only that it wasn’t going to be an autopsy. As fate would have it, the subject was the Lockerbie tragedy. Another jolt and I can’t escape. I vaguely remember slides – I think some of the ice rink laid out with unidentifiably small, labelled items. The rest is blanked in shock and suppression.

Sister: There have been patches when I’ve been much more sensitive to the noise of planes going over. When I was at uni (five to six years later), I was quite depressed and stressed. I started having a real ‘twitch-it’ every time a helicopter went over, which was fairly frequent. I got some counselling and felt like I’d sorted it out, faced it, dealt with it and could move on. Thought no more about it until I had a flashback.

Me: At university graduation, in the booklet listing all those graduating, I see the name of a school classmate. Beside their name in Latin: in aegrograt, which I find means awarded in absentia due to illness. We weren’t friends and perhaps there is no connection, but for me it linked back to that time and it was another reminder of the malaise still rippling out from that event.

Me: University library journals allowed me access to my father’s January 1989 article about his personal and professional experiences. I was tense in anticipation of any description that might trigger a vasovagal episode. It felt uncomfortably vainglorious at the time, but now I accept that he was sharing his viewpoint as we all needed to.

Me: Living in Glasgow, visiting the Museum of Transport at Kelvingrove. I stumbled across an oddly shaped alcove, an architectural off-cut, holding a recent memorial listing all the Lockerbie tragedy victims’ names. I read through for the few I recognised. Another unexpected discordant jolt. Still not connected to my experience.

Sister: About ten years after, my brother-in-law bugged me to play my cello, which I’d not touched in the meantime. When I finally sat with it I had a massive flashback of the plane crash: a picture of my bedroom window, thinking ‘what the fuck is that noise?’ and the feeling in my feet. At that time I’d been practising every day for year and a half, so I think there was an association of the era. That was ‘oh, fuck, I thought that was over and done with.’


Me: I always imagined managers would figure it out from my CV, or medical professionals would see my health centre registration history, but seemingly people aren’t that inquisitive. Even psychologists I consulted later for apparently unrelated issues never asked the ‘right’ questions. Even the one who was interested in dreams didn’t spot the theme of aircraft and impending doom. When I pointed it out, they labelled it my ‘apocalypse’ and concluded that I was over it. Another disappointment from admission. Perhaps they’re right: of all people they should be the ones to know how to drill down to pertinent experiences.

Father: I kept getting repeated episodes of PTSD. I remember turning on the TV one day and looking at the raw news footage of the twin towers event in the US. That didn’t half give me a kick in the backside. A short-lived revisit to PTSD. I felt upset in quite a profound way. The shock was exaggerated because it was bringing up a memory. It wasn’t a dramatic detailed deal; it was just a broad thump. But it was unpleasant and upsetting in a diffuse and general way.

Father: Early on in PTSD you get specific flashbacks, which I’ve forgotten about now, but I don’t think I had too many of them, although I was certainly not well. The twin towers was quite different: it was a general shock which was more exaggerated than I would have expected without the sensitisation from Lockerbie.

Me: 2001 September, six weeks into new job, with a long commute. Office activity was entirely disrupted all afternoon as news reached us. Again I felt suspended in terror. I drove home with my mind racing, unsure what I should be afraid of: I didn’t recognise the threat; was this the end of the world or of my familiar civilisation? Detached in shock for several days.

Father: I was obviously left with some memories that were buried still. When there was a trigger event, of which there were several over a period of time, the twin towers being the last big one, each time I got a kick-back. Each time a flare-up of a diffuse, not symptomatic-specific, unpleasant reboot of the memories of Lockerbie: diffuse stress, anxiety, not feeling right in a peculiar way. It’s difficult to describe. The symptoms you meet commonly with, I didn’t encounter those. I had a general wipe-out.

Father: It happened again somewhere else, perhaps another plane-related event. Eventually I talked to a friend about it. I was feeling fed-up with all these kick-backs. So at that point I examined all the memories, brought them all up into conscious view again, externalised them and put them all into a large balloon. I asked for higher assistance to take them away, which happened. All these memories were removed and I haven’t had the problem since then. It was an indication of the profundity of the damage to my system at the time, which you don’t realise.


Me: For the twenty-five year anniversary, STV broadcasted a documentary. I wanted to face another perspective. I decided to brave it: my first exposure to harrowing tales from people I didn’t know from the town, and more so from America. I found the raw grief, mostly from bereaved parents, and the grisly descriptions very distressing. I needed several sessions to get through the whole programme.

Me: A DWP security check required me to recall previous addresses. Working back through myriad student residences, I sensed the advisor was becoming jaded. Eventually they admitted it was an address where I’d been registered to receive a benefit. I was sure I’d never received a benefit. The penny finally dropped: child benefit, and without hesitation I recalled the address, down to the postcode: DG11 etc. Another bit of life data; five years living there all hijacked by one night.

Me: I learn from someone else who was there that there were two memorable smells: aviation fuel and kerosene. Kerosene is now familiar to me as heating oil, and has an entirely different awful smell to that which I experienced in the street outside our house. But it was used to power generators for the emergency services. I now understand my sister’s memory.

Sister: During some recent bodywork (rolfing) the right hand side of my neck—my scalenes—were super-jammed in total physical resistance to the therapy. Eventually the therapist found a way in and suddenly I felt the shallow breathing, terror, although I felt in a safe place. In another session (CST) I again felt absolute terror, like a bunny in the headlights. The therapist noticed my physical response, like my eyes were completely dilated. My left leg felt fizzing, like vibrations. I was aware of rumbling, terror, breathing again. I asked myself what was needed. It just needed acknowledged and passed out my feet. Again, each time I thought ‘that’s that done now’ but it came up again.

Me: I asked my father had anyone educated us about PTSD or offered counselling. I don’t remember, and even if I had been offered I may’ve declined in sullen denial.

Father: PTSD is now commonly recognised. At that stage it wasn’t.

Sister: When we were on holiday, walking from a viewpoint through forestry, it was a bit off-road, scooting down through woodland above a loch. A fighter jet came, oh my god, he was so close! My family were like “whoa!” but not fearty. I absolutely cacked myself. I really didn’t expect to do that because I heard it coming and knew it was a noisy plane. It was the lag with the noise behind it, so it had gone but it kept getting noisier. There I was on the side of this hill amongst some trees and there would’ve been no escape. My insides all went into turmoil. I felt really quite jittery.

Me: I react similarly, mostly with aeroplanes, just the noise of it, I find intensely stressful.

Sister: As soon as I start to describe things, I can’t remember the sense of it as much. When you ask for more detail, it’s going out of focus: in my head I have a picture, a sense of being there and of there being various members of the family, not quite sure, some of them taller than me. As soon as you said, “who was there?” I couldn’t look round and tell you exactly which ones. It just wasn’t clear.

Me: News stories about aeroplane disasters continue to give me an awful jolt, even though at the time I didn’t know that’s what I was experiencing. I’m so fortunate not to have lost anyone I was close to or even knew. Aeroplanes now seem to me weapons of mass destruction.

Me: I no longer think of it every day, but from time to time, sometimes spontaneously, sometimes prompted by times or events. I try to mark the solstice on 21 December as well as remembering that tragedy. Iconic news article image of the severed aeroplane nose-cone embedded in Tundergarth hill still jolts me with apprehension. I didn’t follow the criminal case or the politics of terrorism – too nebulous and detached from my experience. The American relatives’ campaign was too blazing with grief and anger for me to face. I feel nothing for the perpetrators. Mentally I now have some understanding of the far bigger issues of global politics, cultural conflicts, imperial arrogance and meddling in other countries’ affairs, over decades and centuries, that may have led to this terrorism, reaping what we sow. Violence is never justifiable; it may seem the only option but there must have been others, better choices, at some earlier point, perhaps missed. When you reach a point where violence seems the only choice, I know you can’t reverse time. Still, this too is coldly detached from my personal experience.

Mother: I do feel a bit stirred up now, but it’s OK.  Something I did.  Was in that place at that time, there was a job to do, fortunately I had some skills which could be used.

Me: Worse, much worse, things happen to other people, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t bad. I recognise how fortunate I am. Everyone has had something challenging in their life.


“As it descended, the fuselage broke up into smaller pieces, with the section attached to the wings landing first in Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie, where the 200,000 lb (91,000 kg) of jet fuel it contained ignited. The resulting fireball destroyed several houses and tore a large crater through the center of Lockerbie. … The British Geological Survey 23 kilometres (14 mi) away at Eskdalemuir registered a seismic event at 19:03:36 measuring 1.6 on the moment magnitude scale, which was attributed to the impact.”


I have deliberately anonymised our stories. Everyone suffers awful experiences; that’s life. To seek personal recognition or professional or financial gain from these events to my mind would be unethical. I share them in hope that they will help someone, and engender more empathy around the different ways people react to dreadful events – something, sadly, we increasingly face.

I have also deliberately excluded experiences we heard from people we knew. That’s theirs to tell if they choose, and here would be entering degrees of hearsay. I’m interested in direct personal experience and not what very quickly becomes sensationalist gossip.

This is published a month ahead of the anniversary in an attempt to detach the tragedy from the solstice, which I’d like to mark differently – positively. And weirdly the weekdays match.

Thanks to my family for their time and emotional energy in reliving these events. The impact lessens with time but never disappears.


Thursday 22 December 1988 – January 1989

Lockerbie tragedy series starts at Wednesday 21 December 1988

Although this contains no graphic description, you may find it distressing.


Thursday 22 December 1988

Me: When did we learn that it was a passenger aircraft? And a bomb?

Mother: How and when we learned it was a passenger jet and a bomb, rather than the military aircraft we first thought is a bit hazy.  I think it was pretty soon after it happened, a day or two at most.

Sister: I think it wasn’t until the next day that we found out that it had actually been a passenger plane.

Mother: The early news told us it was a passenger jet with 259 on board. All feared dead.

Mother: We left Grandpa to form a “secure base” in case the phone rang or anyone called. The GPO had by now disconnected all private lines to make more available for the emergency services. Though we understood the need for this, the initial misinformation in the media, i.e. that Lockerbie was wiped out, our family included, led to a great deal of worry among relatives and friends.

Mother: I met several neighbours whom I had invited for tea that afternoon. “Cancel” they said – “Please come” I replied “though there will be no baking done this morning” which proved to be useful as we all had the need to talk over our experiences.

Father: By the following morning the local school had been commandeered for the disaster operation and was full of police, servicemen, and an army of invaluable catering helpers; and social services. During the course of an exploratory inspection in the hope of identifying a role for myself, I found out that the situation was unusual in that there were two related but quite separate tasks in hand. Firstly, and much larger, was the operation related to the aeroplane itself. Secondly, but no less important, was the task of helping the local people. It did not seem to me at all likely that the local inhabitants would walk to the other end of the town, find their way through perhaps two thousand men taking a break for food and tea, and present their psychological stress adjustment difficulties for counselling in a remote room.

Mother: You two and I walked across the bridge and looked upon a scene reminiscent of those pictures of the Blitz: charred and smoking blackened remains, an eerie silence on the usually busy road and that awful smell. When the aircraft crashed, the fuselage and the wings were full of fuel for the transatlantic crossing – it covered everything: houses, gardens, roads. The whole town was silent. We saw the stunned disbelief on people’s faces.

Mother: We picked our way down Main Street; debris was littered everywhere, fragments of metal, small and large, a sort of sickly green colour; chunks of dirt, paving slabs and stones from the houses, flung in the air when the aircraft hit. Almost every house had shattered windows, often only the outside layer of the double glazing. A man was shovelling glass from his shop window. Firehoses ran along the edge of the road, flat now, after the unequal task of last night. The Townfoot Garage to my amazement was intact. Fireman stood around in small groups waiting for instructions, soldiers marched purposefully, pressmen were everywhere.

Mother: We passed the end of Sherwood Park which leads to Sherwood Crescent: a barrier half across it and a policeman were evidence that [we] could not even try to enter. At last we reached Quaas Loaning, and turning in, saw larger pieces of aircraft in the gardens and on the road, some were lodged in roofs. One elderly gentleman was ineffectually trying to sweep the debris off his grass. At Quaas Crescent, to our joy, we saw our friends standing by their gate. We flew and hugged them. Then we stood and talked. You stayed with your friend. A forlorn blackened chimney stack marked where a house had stood. The couple in it got out. There were lots of photographers, not all of them from the press. Jackals. Two newspeople barged past us – they were desperate to get a better view. I turned away.

Mother: As we picked our way back up the street a woman walked out of her house with two immaculately dressed little girls, one pushing a doll’s pram. The mother, in her white high-heeled boots, avoided the worst of the mud, carrying her shopping bag. The contrast was incredible. Men were already at work on broken glass doors, hammering in new frames as net curtains flew in the breeze. We stopped and talked with everyone, each had a story to tell. It seemed important to share our experiences, both then and later.

Mother: We came to the Town Hall which last night had been a refugee centre. It was now a morgue. Your sister was getting worried about a classmate of hers. We consulted a typed list on the wall not at first realising if it showed the dead or the living. In the fear and the confusion came the wheedling voice of a pressman: were we looking for our ‘loved ones’? – We ducked and ran. No sob stories from us. On the pavement I spotted a poignant reminder: a single white oxygen mask. We staggered on, burdened with palpable grief.

Mother: The Academy had been requisitioned as the centre of operations. Your sister knew her way around. We found firemen in the maths room, telecom men in the tech room, social services and housing had handwritten notices, soldiers and large policeman were everywhere. We began to feel very small. We came to the assembly hall where only on Tuesday evening we had enjoyed the school’s Christmas production of “A Christmas Carol”. Against the backdrop of the stage and the Christmas decorations, army, RAF, coastguards, police and telecom were setting up headquarters in various corners. Feeling like outsiders in our own school we timidly asked if we could help. The policewoman looked very tall and very tired: “WRVS > that way, Red Cross < that way". There was a small group of townsfolk looking as lost as us. We peeped around at the efficient ladies of the WRVS resplendent in their overalls dishing out loads of food to an endless string of young soldiers and policemen and ducked back. We dithered a while, then all decided this was no place for amateurs. We set off to see one of your sister's friends; she was home and your sister stayed with her. I walked home the back way to get away from the crowds of cameramen, reporters and strangers who seemed to have taken over the town.

Sister: I remember going about with the pals in the next couple of days. The phone lines must've been back on because that was how we would've been in touch. Maybe a pal came round and we just went to somebody's house, chapped somebody's door or whatever. I remember four of us that used to hang out together, all there at one pal's house. We were going to go out for a walk and her dad said, "don't you go down there – looking about down there." Of course that's exactly what we did. We walked down the high street, down past Presto and just saw this town, like a ghost town, with all these massive, big nuts and bolts lying all over the road and the smell of kerosene everywhere. I remember that smell. I still wasn't grasping the enormity of it.

Me: I open the front door to a school friend who lives out of town. She's come in concern to see if I and other friends are alright. I feel alienated, unable to meet that concern and compassion. I want to be justified in saying I'm not OK, when clearly I am. I want attention but don't want attention. I'm stuck in perverse. I answer in monosyllables. I don't invite her in.

Father: I was not right, I recognised I was not fully operational, but I was able to carry on.

Me: Walking over the motorway bridge into town, I'm unable to look south along the motorway for fear of distress, resenting every passing vehicle as if they're all 'rubber-neckers' – I've picked up gossip that this poor driving behaviour has caused collisions on the motorway.

Father: The varieties of distress encountered varied widely in severity and type. Shock leading to indecisiveness, hypersensitivity, and irritability with insomnia was a common core cluster of symptoms. In addition, there were problems with imagery. I had some difficulty at night eliminating the picture of burning houses from my mind and solved the difficulty by judicious substitution of images from television.

23-31 December 1988

Sister: All of us realised that our classmate whose house was burnt had no Christmas presents, so on about the 23rd we went into the wee local chemist and the gift shop and bought all the shite presents of the day so as they had something to open on Christmas – some horrible snowman made of soap or bubble bath or something like that!

Father: I was stressed and I was aware I was stressed. I wasn't panicky, neither was I depressed. I was stressed as opposed to being anxious. It's a different hormonal response: with stress you get more cortisone produced; with anxiety you get more adrenaline produced. I didn't have any serious flashbacks or symptoms of that kind so, although I had PTSD, it wasn't too severe. I was able to carry on and did so. I didn't fully understand the extent to which I had been below the mark until we were in France, so that was 18 months later. I suddenly clicked and I realised whatever it was I had completed the process of working it through.

Mother: Grandpa gave practical advice over the days that followed, about going to the only phone that was working, at the station, and phoning my sister, and asking her to contact various relatives and friends. As you can imagine, there was a long queue there, as the emergency services had taken over all the private lines. However, BT quickly installed lines in the library which became one of the centres for information, where I worked.  Whether I actually discussed the situation with him I'm not sure. There wasn't really time for discussion, just getting on with the job and the family.

Me: Your mention of queuing at the station for the public phone brings back a faint memory of a grim interior and my usual stunned inarticulation.

Father: Your mother became quite mood-elevated. Another source of the stress was I found myself quite resentful of her keeping bringing Americans to the house. I didn't like that at all. I didn't enjoy that, although she obviously did, and it was valuable and she was being helpful. I wasn't bothered by the gang of your peers watching James Bond films, working through your PTSD, which took you about ten days. You would take yourselves off to look at the wreckage and come back again.

Me: Was I included?

Father: Yes, you all were. Grandpa used to keep an eye on you and he was a good source of information. I realised it was an instinctive stage of the process going on there and decided to leave well alone.

Sister: I was there with all my pals but you weren't; you took yourself off somewhere.

Father: On reflection, you may not have been in the group watching Bond films. Grandpa was observing the group, not individuals, and I wasn't there. I don't have a mental picture of your presence.

Me: I was very good at fading into the background if a situation made me uncomfortable.

Mother: The children of the family whose house was burnt came to us every day, so did all their friends – they were hyper, noisy, edgy, brittle, charming in every way. They were desperate to prove they were alive, while their friends and classmates had died. I have never been so busy cooking, hoovering, washing – we never sat down less than eight to a meal! When their mother had her new cheque-book and felt fit enough, though not for driving, I took the family shopping to Carlisle. It is hard enough to buy clothes and shoes for one child for one season, but for three plus two parents from the skin out, is quite a task, especially at the beginning of the sales!

Sister: One day we chummed the family whose house had burnt to Marks & Spencer's to buy a whole new set of clothes. There was some kind of memorial so they had to get smart togs but they didn't have any normal clothes either because everything had been burnt. I couldn't believe that one set of clothes for each member of the family had cost five hundred quid.

Mother: Dealing with bereaved relatives was a steep learning curve – I knew a bit about the sadness of losing a family member, but not about the anger associated with their death, especially in the case of a child, who shouldn't die before their parent.

Me: A lady who lost her house but not her family sits at dining table, telling my mother of her anger when one of her parents died. She seems to be trying to help my mother understand her own or Grandpa's grief around my grandmother's death, although that was several years ago. My mother reacts in a prickly way that seems to me from past experience to indicate she feels offended by this lady. I wonder why she seeks out people who seem to irritate her.

Father: Behaviour responses seen commonly included hyperactivity, over-talkativeness, and brittleness; some of the most unfortunate were overwhelmed with helpless grief and despair, while others became unexpectedly precise and tram-lined – reflections of different psychological personality types.

Me: I heard the ice rink had been commandeered as a morgue and thought it made sense, but how grisly. The building was opposite part of the school campus. From when term started after the festive break, for the rest of my time at that school, I always walked past on the school side of the street. I didn't resume ice-skating.

Father: Myself and two nurses saw one hundred and twenty cases of PTSD in the first ten days – colleagues, emergency service people and residents.

Mother: I didn't know any of the residents of Sherwood Crescent before the disaster, but knew at least one in Quaas Loaning which was pretty close, and one in Sherwood Park.

Me: I didn't know any of the victims. I had seen one who was in my sister's class walking home from school. One of my classmates lost their house but we weren't friends so we didn't speak.

Father: Grandpa was a typical stoic and didn't talk about stuff. On one occasion I tried to get him to talk about his time in the Eighth Army. I was interested. His comment was, "we played bridge going to and fro across the desert", and he was a senior artillery officer for the Royal Artillery Regiment, for god's sake. It was the same talking about Lockerbie: one off-hand comment like that and that was it; he wouldn't talk about any of it. Servicemen saw a lot of nasty stuff and they didn't talk about any of it.

January 1989

Me: Three weeks later, a British Midland aircraft crashed on a motorway in England. My bewildered terror rose again; non-comprehension at massive scale disasters, sinister connections.

Mother: When we had news of the air crash on the M1, not three weeks later, it was too soon, too familiar, too painful.

Me: A memorial concert at the school hall with Jackie Bird presenting gave me a sense of how the outside world wanted to do something to help.

Me: Prince Andrew visited the town, and allegedly commented that such an event was unfortunately likely to happen at some point, just a shame it was Lockerbie. Some took unkindly to this statistical pragmatism and I sucked up the soap opera umbrage. I then heard talk that this was inadequate attention from the royal family and we should be somehow 'upgraded.' Subsequently Prince Charles visited. We were let out of school to line the pavement from the Cross to the station. I had palpitations as he approached, thinking I'd get to shake his hand. My classmate did, but he skipped by me as he couldn't reach everyone. I felt like I'd messed up some great opportunity, when really it was meaningless.

Mother: Although the ice rink was still in use as a morgue, the school was reopened only four days late, with the investigation team still in the Annexe. Since that time I have been working in the community liaison office in the library where at last the people of the town were able to bring their needs and their offers of help. We quickly got to know who to contact for roof repairs, insurance or nighttime fears. Low flying was suspended over Lockerbie. Our local MP and the chief executive were frequent visitors; all levels of all departments of the regional council were instantly accessible. We contacted the leaders of all the local voluntary groups: Probus, Evergreens, ATC, young farmers, Rotary, young wives, parent and toddler groups etc. etc. as well as the very large number of individuals who came to offer their services. At last we could do something – we were beginning to rebuild our lives. Everyone pitched in, we were all on first name terms, we worked round the clock, food forgotten, families had to fend for themselves. Enormous amounts of baking were done, the town hall scrubbed, the troops fed, maps photocopied, bereaved relatives looked after, streets cleaned, gardens cleared and everyone kept informed by our bulletin "Update" which is delivered to every house in the town and the surrounding villages. There was the kind of community spirit I believe existed during the Blitz, accompanied by the corny and sometimes black humour that would seem insensitive out of context. There was tremendous support from the enormous number of messages of sympathy, cards, letters and donations from all over the world. We had many visitors bringing gifts: lorry loads of food and clothes, Welsh rugby supporters on their way to Murrayfield raised money and sang to us. Close ties have been made with many Americans and we expect more visitors in the summer.

Me: Some weeks/months later, I came upon a crew member's partner in our living room, as one of the American relatives my mother was involved with supporting as part of the community support group. My mother explained that the investigators had pieced together a gift the crew member was bringing home. I couldn't face imagining the partner's grief or trying to interact so as usual I fled.

Mother: Many of the cars we had seen burning on the carriageway had been tossed by the blast from Sherwood Crescent where they had been parked. Amazingly no motorists were hurt.… Now all the aircraft wreckage has been taken away and the crater that it left in the ground filled in. As I walked away with other survivors I saw a neat row of crocuses in bloom, in painful yet hopeful contrast to the blackened shell that was once a house. I saw no bodies but I know of many who did. There is no-one who has not been affected by the disaster in some way.

Mother: It was in a way the most meaningful Christmas I have spent – sharing our house with a family who had lost theirs, sharing presents and food; friends visiting who hadn't been able to telephone, going to see people one was concerned about, making new friends every day. When we realised how close we were to death but had been spared we knew we had a job to do. It was as if a great evil had befallen the town: that jumbo jet falling from the skies not only brought death and destruction to hundreds of innocent people, but also with it the bitterness and ruthlessness of those who had perpetrated the crime. It produced a tremendous response: a wellspring of goodness: a heartfelt, giving, selfless expression that began the healing process. It will take a very long time; every Christmas will bring a reminder and we shall never forget our longest night.

Father: The psychological problems occurred throughout the emergency services, including the army, although the army denied it.

Me: I saw the response to your published article, asserting that they had recently had their battleshock training so they were especially well prepared.

Father: In any case, PTSD is more widely recognised now, and treated – it's a psychological problem, not a psychiatric one. It's a normal and difficult response to a highly abnormal, stressful situation.

Father: PTSD was barely known when the disaster occurred. PTSD was in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the reference for psychiatric diagnosis. When it was all over, I was invited down to St Andrew's Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Northampton, to address my colleagues. What was interesting there was all the psychologists had addressed the problem by post-event questionnaires. I was able to stand up and say, this is what we actually found: these symptoms, in this frequency, and so on. That went down very well. It shows you how new the thing was at that stage. At that point in time it was not accepted that psychological help was essential. It's all happened since then. PTSD has become accepted as a common diagnostic label. Subsequently I was invited to a local emergency planning meeting to promote the need to set up a psychological response if there was a disaster. When this happened at Lockerbie, there were sixty-three medical surgical teams on stand-by at the DGRI (Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary) and there was not one case for them. An ambulance driver told me, "it was terrible: we were all there but there was nothing we could do. They were all dead or distressed."

Mother: I usually came home after a day with "Community Liaison" to find the house full of your and your sister's friends.  They were always hungry and often stayed over watching videos – I'm sure you remember.  Don't think I have ever served so many baked beans on toast before or since!!  And found sleeping bags and blankets.

Concludes at 1989 – Present


Wednesday 21 December 1988

I’m fascinated by how differently people perceive and experience a shared traumatic event, how they try to make sense of it, and how they remember it. This is how my family and I recall witnessing an aeroplane falling on our town 30 years ago: Pan-Am flight 103 was bombed and fell on Lockerbie in Scotland on 21 December 1988, killing 273 people.

I’ve interwoven our memories and contemporary written accounts into a timeline. This is about the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of our perceptions as much as the repercussions of a tragic event. Our experiences are neither extreme nor remarkable; they are unique, yet our reactions are common humanity.

Although this contains no graphic description, you may find it distressing.


Wednesday 21 December 1988

Me: Back of seven, I’m supposedly studying – sitting at my bedroom desk, day-dreaming, listening to pop. I stand up, intending to depart, awaiting the end of a song, my finger on the stop button. As the music fades out, in comes rumbling. My feet feel the floor shaking. I turn to see a bright orange glow seeping around my closed curtains. Alien sensations, no comparable experience. I imagine an earthquake.

Sister: I was posing at my bedroom mirror! I was aware of the rumbling, like thunder, but it didn’t come and go: it carried on and got more and more and louder. I had no idea what it was. There was a huge thunder crescendo. I don’t think there was a bang; it came to a massive finale and that must’ve been the cockpit landing. The next thing: my whole view outside my window goes orange – my curtains were open. It wasn’t like a wee bonfire over there; the whole sky was orange.

Father: My disaster started with a very violent loud noise passing just above my head, a tormenting crescendo ending very near by in an explosion, and an uncomfortably brilliant illumination of my curtains. I had assumed a crouch position; I can tell you that the earth and my house moved to and fro, and I can tell you that I was frightened.

Mother: Just after seven o’clock – the pie was in the oven, I had just finished washing up the pots and pans when I heard a low rumble and before my eyes rose a huge billowing cloud of flame, hundreds of feet into the air, accompanied by a very loud bang. Then came the most terrifying part: the earth shook, the house trembled on its foundations, and was still.

Father: There was this very loud screeching noise over the top, just above the house. It couldn’t have been more than fifty feet up, making a very terrifying noise. I recognised it as an aeroplane but it obviously wasn’t right.

Me: Hearing you describe the noise brought back a memory for me: that sickening descending drone, which I had repressed. When I hear aeroplanes now—the lowering of tone as they pass over—it links to anxiety.

Father: It was on its way to crash just two hundred yards away. There was a big bang and flash and the whole house lit up from the explosion flash through the curtains. When it had finished, both Grandpa and I, having been about to go in for dinner, both of us were crouching on the floor. Entirely instinctive. We both did it without thinking about it. Grandpa was in front; I was behind him. It was a very frightening occasion.

Sister: Not being able to articulate, not having any idea; a few thoughts spiralling round then something else comes in and you don’t know what to make of it all.

Me: I don’t remember hearing an explosion or an impact.

Sister: You commented around the time that you’d thought World War Three was starting.

Mother: I shouted to your father, turned off the oven, Grandpa said “dial 999” and your father, you two and I ran out into the night.

Father: Grandpa’s first response when there was the big flash and bang was very good: “right,” he said, “I’ll man the phones; you go and find out what’s happened.”

Sister: From my bedroom, I went through to the kitchen, thinking ‘what on earth was that?’ By then the noise had stopped. The orangeness must have faded but definitely something had happened. The kitchen would be where people would be. I had absolutely no idea what had happened. I don’t remember my feelings at that point, but since having had these Somato-emotional Releases (SERs) recently I would imagine I must’ve been pretty petrified.

Sister: I can’t remember exactly who was in the kitchen. I’m imagining that Grandpa was probably sitting in a recliner chair in the living room; that Mum was in the kitchen, and I think Dad would’ve been coming through from the living room. I’m sure I remember me and Mum and Dad looking out the kitchen window or the dining room window, looking to see if we could see what on earth was that.

Me: I blunder out my bedroom, along the corridor, partly disconnected from my senses, as I feel when I’m going to faint. I head for my family — in the kitchen, clustered at the east-facing window, gazing over and beyond the housing estate at a row of flame – well above the roofs in between, which are on a rise from our house.

Sister: There was some milling about. I remember you appearing when we were in the kitchen and, like all of us, being like ‘what’s going on?’ I can’t remember specifically, but generally I feel we were milling and nobody knew; we were all just asking. Grandpa was the only sensible one with a thing to do.

Mother: Grandpa was a great support, taking on the military role he had done presumably in the field during the Second World War.  “You two go out and do what you can, I will remain here and form a stable base in case the phone rings or anyone comes to the door”.   I think you probably remember that as you and your sister stayed home after our first dash outside – you gave him supper I think, did you eat together?

Sister: Grandpa did the war thing: “telephone out and let people know you’re alright immediately.” So our parents phoned friends in Glasgow maybe. Very shortly after that they went to phone somebody else and the phone line was dead. So it was a good job Grandpa had said that and they’d done it so swiftly, because otherwise, you had no mobile phones then, so nobody would’ve known. So friends in Glasgow could put the word out to other friends that we weren’t little crisps of burntness.

Me: Did you have any sense of why the phone lines were cut?

Sister: I didn’t understand why it didn’t happen instantly. I assumed the phone line had been damaged by the impact of whatever it was. But it’s never made sense to me. Is there a conspiracy theory that someone cut the phone lines?

Me: That would be a new one. Father’s written account suggests British Telecom cut the lines to stop news media pestering random residents. That doesn’t seem a sufficient negative to outweigh the positive of relatives being able to get through. I wonder about National Security but I don’t know what that would mean in practice. A friend has suggested it would be to free up phone lines for emergency services, because an exchange can only cope with so much and they get priority.

Sister: Perhaps the impact happened here, but then a domino effect finally knocked over a telegraph pole.

Me: It’s interesting to me to hear what was going through people’s minds as it happened, and how we try to explain these bewildering events like nothing we’ve encountered before. And how we focus on arbitrary details! Like you, I thought: it wasn’t instant so it’s not like the exchange has exploded. Has the fire only now reached it?

Sister: After the milling in the kitchen, and Grandpa being the organised one, me and you were just “what? Who? What? Who?” on a loop, parents would’ve had some conflab, and I think there was a general consensus that they would walk up over the motorway fly-over to see if – Mum’s words: “there was anything we could do.” Grandpa said, “right, with a gammy leg, I’m no use, I can’t walk that far, so I’ll stay here and man the base” – an army thing, thinking in a crisis: some people go out on a recce, some people stay back and guard. This was in the kitchen still.

Me: Outside, I immediately smell an overwhelming sweet, sickly stench of burning flesh – so it seems, linked to experiments in school chemistry class with lycopodium powder and some inference about protein; later I understand this to have been aviation fuel. The street is showered with little twisted pieces of metal with rivet holes.

Mother: We could see the flames burning fiercely, it seemed it was just the other side of our estate. Neighbours were coming out and walking or running silently towards that inferno.

Me: My parents and sister plan to walk on through the estate to assess what has happened and what can be done. I feel overwhelming dread and anxiety from the rivet holes, and an imagined sense of human suffering, as I always do. ‘Useless is a crisis’, my father has previously rebuked me, and it’s true. I announce I’ll stay at home. No-one challenges me. Grandpa also chooses to stay at home – some reasoning about manning the telephone but he also has difficulty walking any distance.

Sister: We decided to walk up – me, the parents, I think you were there too, but your presence was much smaller and less obvious. Dad walked with his hands clasped behind his back in that way he did, surveying, maybe leading. Me and Mum walking together. I noticed all the giant bits of rubble and bits of big screws and bits of metal all over the road. I wondered what’d happened and really wanted to be able to help people but it was a complete unknown quantity. I had no idea what help would be required and if I was in any way equipped to do that. I wanted to do something. I was also very scared because I didn’t know what it was.

Father: Your mother and I went off to see what was happening. The A74 road was burning, but no cars; there was nothing you could do, just a hole on the other side of the road.

Me: I sit on the living room carpet flicking through CEEFAX pages on TV to find out what happened. Initially nothing, eerie disconnection again—this hasn’t happened for the rest of the world—then piecemeal reports appear and update, describing a military jet crash. Low flying training aircraft are common along these valleys so it makes some sense as an explanation. When my family returns I relay this. I have no memory of Grandpa’s reaction. Or of them telling me what they had seen.

Father: Looking east across the A74 gave me an indelible image of several homes burning fiercely, vividly outlined by fire against the night sky. In some curious way it seemed small and unreal, and yet at the same time part of my mind was addressing the awfulness confronting it. I had not seen a road burning before, with cars as well.

Mother: When we got to the edge of the estate we saw a scene of devastation across the carriageway. Beside the huge blazing cloud and its acrid smoke, a row of houses was burning fiercely, several cars on the carriageway were balls of fire, all traffic had come to a standstill. We gaped in awe and fear. Your father said, “come back to the house and get a coat.”

Sister: We got as far as the fly-over and stood looking. Ambulances started coming up the road. Traffic was quite sparse anyway at that time of night. We still didn’t know what to do. I can’t remember whether you were there or not. I was so busy taking it in. I was with family. We didn’t go beyond the fly-over as the road went back down again so all those houses would’ve been in the way.

Father: The initial emergency services’ response was fast, which was quite clear and comforting, but vehicles with flashing blue lights kept on coming and coming in depressing variety and number and I wondered where they were all going to. They were the first signal that somebody somewhere had put a finger on the major disaster button.

Sister: What I saw was just burning, just flames and burning. There was all this rubble: giant nuts and bolts lying in the street, yet whatever it was was way, way over there. I couldn’t compute how something had happened way, way over there, and there was all this stuff lying, widely scattered all up and down the road. I had no idea of the magnitude. We stood at the fly-over for a bit wondering, asking one another what did we think, Dad being all “what this is is clearly…” I can’t remember what Mum was saying. You would think I’d remember her shrieking but no. I think even she was stunned into silence. I was standing there like a goldfish. The decision was taken that, “no, there’s nothing we can do here. The emergency services have arrived.” There were all the ambulances and a couple of police cars as well. Dad was saying, “the services have got it in hand. We’ll just be in the way. We need to go back.”

Sister: We walked back down the road. I felt quite deflated because I’d wanted to help or do something and we’d just gone and looked. I still didn’t know what it was and I hadn’t been able to do anything useful. I was just being shepherded away again, back to the house. I wondered if it was a gas explosion, perhaps from something Dad said. For that size and magnitude of flames, I thought something had definitely exploded, but I thought it was something that was already there. It didn’t even cross my mind that it was incoming. Even though, when I’d been in my bedroom, and I’d felt the rumbling, it felt like it came over the top of the house. I still don’t know the geography of which direction, other than it came from up down the way. So I don’t know if it did come over the house, or if it was just getting louder as it was getting closer.

Sister: I remember walking back down the main road that our estate was off, with the parents, back to the house. Coming back in, Dad tried to do ‘reporting back to base’ telling Grandpa what we’d seen. I think Mum would’ve flapped into domestics but I don’t remember. I don’t remember you being about or saying anything.

Me: A family friend in London calls; I think this was a surprise as we had thought the telephone was disconnected. My father I think gives her my aunt’s number to pass on reassurance that we’re OK. Soon thereafter the phone lines are cut. My father interprets this as standard practice and quick thinking; I wonder if this means a national security threat.

Mother: By the time we got back, Grandpa had got a newsflash on TV to say it was believed a military aircraft had crashed in Scotland. Your father and I put on coats and walked up to the bridge over the carriageway. By this time, more houses were ablaze, the flames fanned by a strong south-west wind. There was an appalling smell. Your father had to physically restrain me from running towards the flames “that is a fireman’s job” and indeed fire engines and ambulances were screaming and clanging towards the scene. We walked past a water main and stepped carefully over thick hoses. At the top of Douglas Terrace we were stopped by a friend wearing a police jacket. Very quietly he asked us not to go down the street. I enquired about families I knew. He said he had no information. An old man started to talk animatedly: “there’s a big piece in our street, Alexandra Place” – “you can get a better view from the bridge” said the boy – my withering look did not quench his excitement. Your father very firmly said “we are going to the surgery”.

Mother: At the health centre we found GPs, nurses, receptionists and helpers all waiting, ready. We waited a while, no more casualties came. The rest were either alive or dead. We trudged home slowly, shocked.

Father: One of my colleagues at the surgery told me that he had found the cockpit of a Boeing 747 in a lonely field three miles away and the crisis increased immediately by an order of magnitude. The fragmented view on the ground was replaced by the concept of very large aircraft falling from a great height, and subsequent detail added to this picture. This allowed us to comprehend why rescue teams were arriving from all points of the compass.

Mother: On the way home, another friend in a police jacket stood, directing traffic away from the scene. Ambulances and fire engines were still arriving, and police were beginning to be drafted in too. On the carriageway bridge sightseers were standing, some lightly clad, perhaps from the long row of stationary vehicles. Cars were parked all the way down the road, on the grass verges and all up into our estate. Sightseers, ghouls, vultures at the kill. Another ambulance appeared. A man waved down a van in its path, and when he didn’t respond thumped the vehicle and abused him. He got the message.

Mother: We were stunned, unable to speak or think, wanting to do something, beaten by the futility of it all. We found you two had given Grandpa some supper and took a little ourselves, watching for news. You couldn’t eat. You were too shocked.

Me: Was I really too shocked to eat, or being passive-dramatic? Were we thoughtful enough to offer Grandpa food—maybe my sister was, as she was in a caring frame of mind, but I doubt I was—or did he prompt us?

Sister: Time passed somehow, because it was not until about half nine that I was told to get ready for bed. We must’ve done something like eaten food in a stunned silence, or other ordinary human function.

Me: I’m puzzled by our mother’s description starting with having a pie in the oven and later saying we made food for Grandpa while they were up at health centre, which suggests we hadn’t yet eaten when it happened, although it was after seven o’clock. I would’ve thought we’d have eaten back of six, as usual.

Father: Many of the victims, rescuers, and unwitting witnesses experienced identical feelings of confusion, inability to make sense out of their own facet of events, and then gradual clarification as information was passed round by word of mouth. The media play an important part for those less closely involved. I noted here a curious change of criteria; fast news was at a premium, errors allowed could presumably be corrected with ease in the light of accurate information. Meanwhile, of course, distortion and error went their way, cascading across the world in echelons of re-transmission and repeat. British Telecom, with professional prescience, disconnected private telephones early, and we all understand the need for this, but in the context of sensational news imperatives there were a distressed and scattered network of friends and relatives who were unable to check their first view that Lockerbie, including my family, had been wiped out.

Sister: I remember Mum saying, “there’s nothing we can do so we just have to carry on as normal: go and get ready for bed, have your shower, do your normal stuff” but I didn’t want to get undressed and go in the shower because I was scared it would happen again. So there must have still been quite a level of anxiety with the uncertainty.

Sister: The feeling of not being prepared: of what if that happens again and I’m in the shower and I won’t be prepared for needing to run out the house. I felt it again when my daughter was born and I literally got to the hospital with less than ten minutes to go. We went in the wrong door and nearly got lost in a corridor. She was born at eleven o’clock and I did not sleep for the whole of that night because I was worrying about what if: what if we’d been stuck in the corridor and nobody’d come, and what if we couldn’t get in and I was giving birth in the carpark. It was that same feeling. Ever since then, that’s played out as me always having everything, like you with your parachute bag [large and heavy, including the kitchen sink], for every eventuality. When I was going on a picnic with a friend, she said she knew she wouldn’t need to bring much because I’d have absolutely everything in the bottom of my buggy.

Sister: When I was in the shower, I heard the sound of something going overhead, the noise made me “augh” with anxiety, then “oh, right, it’s just the helicopters.” I had the quickest shower I’ve ever had in my life. I can’t remember anything else about that day.

Mother: We dragged ourselves hopelessly to bed, to be prepared for what the morrow would bring, but the constant clatter of helicopters overhead made it difficult for anyone to sleep.

Me: How did the evening end? How did I sleep? Had school finished for the festive break or were we due in on the Thursday? Was a decision taken to close it as it was taken over by emergency services?

Sister: I think school had definitely finished, because I remember the next day or the day after a classmate chapped the door to say, since their house got burnt including their jotters, could they borrow mine to copy up.

Continues at Thursday 22 December 1988 – January 1989

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