Digital Ischemia


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

1 Comment »

  1. […] Continues at Thursday 22 December 1988 – January 1989 […]

    Pingback by Wednesday 21 December 1988 | Digital Ischemia — 22/11/2018 @ 16:12

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