Lockerbie shuns limelight as Libya unravels

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2011 12:01 AM
Lockerbie shuns limelight as Libya unravels

One winter's night in 1988, dozens of bodies fell from the sky onto the green fields surrounding a small stone church a few miles outside this Scottish town.

A Boeing 747 had blown up over Lockerbie, scattering its doomed passengers and crew across the countryside. That moment, and the ones that followed, turned Lockerbie into a byword for international terror. Pan Am Flight 103's nose cone, lying on its side just across from the Tundergarth church's moss-streaked graveyard, became the disaster's unforgettable symbol.

Ever since, the town of about 4,000 has been trying to heal and draw a veil over the tragedy that just happened to take place above it.

"It's over 20 years ago, but it's still very real," said Moira Mortimer, the church's treasurer. She recalled the warm food she and others cooked for the workers hunting for corpses, and the red blankets local farmers used to cover the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot.

The past can be difficult to leave behind, particularly when the present butts in.

In recent weeks, the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, which years later would accept responsibility for the bombing, has unraveled. Armed conflict has spread throughout the North African country. International powers have intervened.

And the name that keeps coming back is Lockerbie. For the world, it means one thing: an evil act that killed all 259 people on the plane and 11 on the ground. For the people here, the word means something else: home.

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In many ways, Lockerbie is a perfectly ordinary town. It's dominated by a big boxy supermarket, and its position along the London-to-Glasgow road means it has long supported a respectable hotel trade. Sawmills feed the newly completed wood-burning power plant, Britain's biggest, while agriculture remains one of the area's most important employers, particularly the dairy industry.

Lockerbie butter, produced by the local creamery, used to be served on airplanes with the town's name written across the packet.

But the reminders of 1988 dot the town.

The town hall, which served as a makeshift morgue for Lockerbie's victims, has a stained glass window bearing the flags of all 21 countries whose citizens died in the attack. At Sherwood Crescent, a simple landscaped garden marks the small side street almost completely consumed in a fireball caused by the plane's fuel-laden wing.

A mile from the center of town, the official memorial garden in Dryfesdale Cemetery slabs of Finnish granite inscribed with the victims' names. A recent visitor found it arrayed with stones, coins, pictures of Catholic saints and a small, faded American flag.

A card, covered in a rain-spattered plastic bag, said: "Life is so short, like the wind on a bird's wing." Another, more faded, was signed "Mom and Dad": "Dearest Sarah," it said, "You stand at the gate of the quiet place. Wait for us."

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Lockardians, as the townspeople are called, had known tragedy in the past.

At 11:25 p.m. on May 14, 1883, a collision at Lockerbie railroad station involving the Glasgow Express left seven people dead and dozens badly injured. Today, at the cozy, halogen-lit Lockerbie Library down the street from the station, microfilmed local newspapers from 1883 carry eulogies made eerie in the context of today.

"Who could have imagined," the Rev. A. D. Campbell told his church congregants, "that when that train, filled with hundreds of human beings, started amid merry jokes and good wishes and pleasant partings of friends and relatives, that it would never reach its journey's end, and that some of its passengers would in a few short hours be hurried into eternity?"

Flight 103, "Clipper Maid of the Seas," blew up four nights before Christmas. Many of its passengers had left London to be with family for the holidays.

Campbell offered Lockardians a prediction which now resonates even more:

"The name of our little town has become known to all Europe, and for the future will be associated in the minds of many with nothing but the most harrowing scenes and the most painful feelings."

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Lockardians are welcoming people, but walk up to someone and ask about the situation in Libya today, and the response is likely to be something like: I don't want to talk politics.

John Gair, a 75-year-old retired history teacher, is watching the developments in Libya but doubts they will provide many answers. He says people here avoid the media because of bad memories of 1988, when 1,000 journalists descended on the town, thrusting cameras into every stricken home.

"A lot of people," Gair says, "have felt that they just want to get on with their lives."

Even Marjorie McQueen, a former councilwoman often quoted in the press, said she had no comment on the recent events in Libya. Nor did she want to discuss Scottish prosecutors' effort to get information out of Libya's former Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, whom some accuse of having a hand in bringing down Flight 103

"Quite a lot of people would be reluctant to talk, to be honest," McQueen said. "We don't feel it has anything to do with us."

Lockerbie would much rather people asked about its Roman ruins, its castles, its stately homes; the nearby birthplace of John Paul Jones, the father of the American navy; and Lockerbie Manor, where the Marquis of Queensberry invented the rules of boxing.

"Lockerbie is known for one night, but people have been here for 6,000 years," said Joanne Dalgleish, a steward at Dryfesdale Lodge, a visitors' center which stands outside the memorial.

The library carries an oral history of Lockerbie, "An' Then The World Come Tae Oor Doorstep." It's full of people who, like Elizabeth Jane Crawford, lament that their town has been linked enduringly to calamity.

"It's not that quiet, little, anonymous place that I grew up with," Crawford said.

Youngsters born well after the bombing accept outsiders' curiosity as a fact of life.

"We're famous, but for a sad reason," said 15-year-old Stuart Rankine, who was hanging out with friends on the sidelines of an evening soccer game outside Lockerbie Primary School.

"`So what happened?' `What was it like?' `How do you feel about it?'" said James Murray, 16, reeling off some frequently asked questions. They don't bother him, he says; they're just part of being from this place. And if Flight 103 had never happened, the only question he might hear is "Where's Lockerbie?"

"It wouldn't even be on the map."

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Tundergarth, the parish where the nose cone landed, is about five kilometers (three miles) from Lockerbie, along a winding road through deep green pasture, forests, hedges and stone fences. Sheep and horses stand stock still as visitors walk past. Just past a bridge that spans a fast-running river known as the Water of Milk, Tundergarth's late Gothic steeple looms over the top of a hill.

The church has been closed for years, but the memorial room, a small square stone structure, was unlocked on a recent day. Motion-sensitive lights illuminated a copy of "On Eagle's Wings," a book that carries the names, photographs and life stories of the bombing's victims.

A huge guest book contains thousands of messages, the most poignant addressed to the dead by their relatives.

"I miss you so much brother," one says. "It doesn't get any easier. I am having a baby which would be your niece or nephew. I wish so much that you could be here."

The notion of moving on, of "closure," seems so paramount here. But families of the victims argue that too many questions remain unanswered.

Dr. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora died in the attack, is one of several British relatives who contend that the only man convicted of the bombing _ Libyan agent Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi _ was innocent, the victim of a flawed U.S. investigation and a miscarriage of Scottish justice.

For years, Swire has pressed for a public inquiry. With Libya back in the news, he has returned to the TV screens and camera crews have returned to Lockerbie. Swire, who doesn't live here, says he believes many in the town are weary of his frequent media appearances.

"They would much rather that the atrocity was forgotten, and of course so would I," he said. "But that can only happen for me when I get satisfied as to who murdered my daughter."

And so goes the central tension of this community _ trying to move on, but always pulled back.

More than a decade after the bombing, a Scottish police officer who had responded on the ground, published a poem. The officer, Brian McManus, wrote of the unshakable sadness of discovering a little girl's corpse lying on a frosted field. He called her "an angel, cast unwanted to the ground."

"My life revolves around her memory yet," McManus wrote.

And still, in a larger sense, does Lockerbie's.