Digital Ischemia

23/11/2018

1989 – Present

Lockerbie tragedy series starts at Wednesday 21 December 1988

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

————

1989

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.

1990

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.

1990s

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.’

2000s

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.

2010s

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.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_Am_Flight_103

————

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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Concludes at 1989 – Present […]

    Pingback by Thursday 22 December 1988 – January 1989 | Digital Ischemia — 27/11/2018 @ 15:11


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