Twenty years ago tonight, just after 7 o’clock my mum answered the phone. My granny was due to phone. My sisters were staying with my granny – my grandfather having died during the year, and the family not wishing her to be alone at Christmas time. My youngest sister was notoriously clumsy. A Venetian stained glasss vase had suffered at her hands earlier in the year. My mum feared for my granny’s porcelain – which sat around the staircase.
So when granny called and asked, "Did you hear the bang?" my mum laughed. "What’s she dropped now?" she asked.
My granny obviously wasn’t laughing. My mum stopped.
Then, the incredulity -
I looked at my dad.
My mum shouted through,
"A plane’s hit Ella’s house but she’s all right."
Ella’s house was four doors from my granny’s. There were military jets, light aircraft. It must be that, thought. We put on Channel 4 news.
And we waited. There was no news. Nothing until the newsreader mentioned that a Boeing 747 had gone missing in the Scottish borders.
We dismissed it. A plane that size hitting Ella’s house would have taken everything in the street. It couldn’t be right.
So we turned onto Border TV.
And it was right. It was a jumbo and Border broadcast an emergency call asking for all medically trained staff. They had to go to Lockerbie. There was a major incident.
My mum was a nurse. She needed to go. For her job. For her children. For her mum.
No-one in the family drove so my mum contacted a family friend to get a lift to Lockerbie.
There were roadblocks up that night. The car was stopped by the police. My mum got out, and indicated she was a nurse. She told the police that if they didn’t let her through she’d cut through the path past the garage, under the railway line. They let her in.
This was good news, for later we discovered that the path was cratered, an engine having landed there and exploded (leading many to believe that the petrol station had blown up – the continual refrain of news reports that evening).
When she got into the town the air stank of aviation fuel, ambulances filled the main streets, and medical personnel that were present weren’t needed. There was no in between state – people had died on impact, or they survived.
She was sent home, having first visited my sisters and my granny. They were shaken, but fine – and home of one of the few working phone lines in Park Place. My grandfather had worked for the GPO. He’d installed the line himself, and it obviously wasn’t connected to the normal circuit for that part of the town.
She got back later that night. I was still up, having flicked between news bulletins and news flashes through the evening.
Her clothes stank. The washing machine was put on that night just after she arrived, and she told us what my sisters had said.
My granny and sisters having sheltered from the initial impact, looked out of the window. What they saw was the most spectacular firework display they’d seen.
My sisters still hate fireworks – staying inside for Guy Fawkes, loathing the midnight displays at New Year.
I get annoyed when some of the commentators suggest that the people of Lockerbie just got on with things – implying some great Scottish stoicism and reserve. They did. But the centre that treated survivors of Piper ALpha for post traumatic stress disorder saw tens of people from Lockerbie. Many – including close family members - still suffer.
I should have been in Lockerbie today. My uncle arranged a family reunion meal. We didn’t go. My mum and my sisters couldn’t face it. Neither could I. I was there with my dad a couple of days later. And I still remember.
Today I’ve watched the coverage, read the articles. I’ll post a little more later this week about the day I visited – but it’ll pretty much be what I posted this time last year. I hope you forgive me the indulgence of repetition. I need to keep writing it out.