Digital Ischemia


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


  1. […] Lockerbie tragedy series starts at Wednesday 21 December 1988 […]

    Pingback by Thursday 22 December 1988 – January 1989 | Digital Ischemia — 22/11/2018 @ 12:26

  2. […] Lockerbie tragedy series starts at Wednesday 21 December 1988 […]

    Pingback by 1989 – Present | Digital Ischemia — 23/11/2018 @ 12:38

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