This time of year is always tainted for me for reasons explained below. Around this time last year I posted on the Lockerbie disaster, which took place nineteen years ago tonight. Please indulge me as I substantially repost it.
I don’t usually do personal stuff on here, so excuse me this. I am originally from a small town in south west Scotland. My parents and siblings still live there. My mother was born and raised in Lockerbie. Her mother still lives there, in the house she has lived in for many years. Her house is in Park Place, a square surrounding a children’s play park. The houses are sandstone, built with local stone. Many are the stories of Corsehill sandstone. Some say it was used in Blackpool tower, some that it was used in the plinth for the Statue of Liberty. The locals liked to brag about the area – the notion that something from their small corner of Scotland was in something known to the world . The houses in Park Place are substantial buildings – for a long time administered by the local authority as council houses. The new Georgian style doors tell any observer that many of the houses are now in private ownership. The area has changed over the years but I spent chunks of my childhood there – visiting my grandfaher’s pigeon loft, playing in the park. At the rear of my grandparents’ house was a cut through to a small shop and behind that a number of houses with well-tended gardens. Over time with regular visits I got to know some of the faces, was greeted with a smile or a hello.
My grandfather was a telecom engineer and loved rural Britain – maintaining cabling and masts in various places around the country. He’d fought in the Second World War, been at Arnhem, had seen a friend blown up by a bomb attached to an injured British soldier who was crying for help. He was a regular presence in my childhood – kind, quietly spoken. He died in 1988. Early that year he was diagnosed with cancer and his condition deteriorated during the year. My mother stayed with him and her parents for his final months caring for her father. He died in the late summer, emaciated, and in tremendous pain. I was in secondary school.
The year had been difficult and my grandmother was struggling. When the Christmas holidays approached my mother was concerned that my grandmother shouldn’t be alone. My sisters volunteered to go to stay. They left for Lockerbie on 20th December 1988.
Just after seven o’clock nineteen years ago we had a phone call. My mother answered. I remember her saying, “What’s she dropped now?” and was a little confused. My grandmother had asked if we had heard the bang? She went on to say, a plane’s hit Ella’s. But we’re all right.”
We put on the Channel 4 news, and at around twenty five past seven the newsreader announced that a Boeing 747 had gone missing. We were shocked. We thought the plane that had hit the house four doors from my grandmother was a light aircraft, but this was a jumbo.
Eventually on the local news a call went out for medical staff to go to Lockerbie. My mother is a nurse. She contacted a friend and was driven to the scene being caught in a roadblock and in a torrent of sightseers queueing to watch the fireworks. The police weren’t going to let her through but she told them she’d walk a back road, and after showing her pass was escorted into the town. This was fortunate, the back road was where part of the fuselage subsequently exploded. She told us the air stank of fuel and smoke. She visited my grandmother and my sisters. My grandmother’s phone was the only one working in the area – my grandfather, the telecom engineer had installed his own phone and, throughout the following days it never failed.
The house four doors from my grandmother had gone. The resident rescued by neighbours; she was concerned only for her pets. The houses on either side had no windows – the impact and the explosions had blown them out. But my grandmother’s home was untouched. No damage.
Many medical staff turned up from across Dumfriesshire. None were needed. There were no injured.
I cannot imagine what my sisters and what my grandmother saw that night. I known that when I visited with my father on Christmas Eve that things were still bad. Journalists prowled the streets in packs. My father was stopped and interviewed (my uncle having previously been stopped by a journalist asking if he thought things were serious. He didn’t punch him, but wished he had). The air stank of smoke. There was a sharp stench of fuel.
Economy class had landed in the house demolished four doors from my grandmother’s home. The park in front of my gandmother’s was used to store various items of wreckage and body parts. Laid out by police officers and young soldiers on the ground. A steady stream of vans went to the demolished house and bodies were removed to the back before being moved to the ice rink at Lockerbie – which was used as a temporary mortuary. A house at the rear of my grandmother’s had a seat through the window, its passenger still there, his or her arm hanging free, three days after the explosion. The hillside at the rear of her property was littered with body parts, each marked with fluorescent markers – like Christmas decorations. A tree at the rear of the property contained the body of a small child. My grandmother still had her Christmas tree up when we went. It did not have its usual focus. The angel was removed the morning after the disaster.
Not long after the disaster the town was visited by Prince Andrew. When he was there, preening himself in a devastated town, he said, “Of course, it was much worse for the Americans.”
The women of Lockerbie washed the clothes and belongings of the dead to return to their relatives. The disaster brought out the best of the townspeople. As for my home town? Well, it was responsible for the thieves who burgled blazing houses on the night of the disaster, who stole life polices and belongings from fields as Lockerbie residents went back to their homes to save some belongings.
In the following years many Lockerbie residents were referred annually to the PTSD specialist centre in Aberdeen (set up after Piper Alpha). The provision of mental health care in Dumfries and Galloway (as elsewhere in the UK) is poor. On another blog this year I read that the residents of Lockerbie did not need counselling. The strength of the community kept them going. Much as I’d like to believe that, I know it’s not true. The residents suffered. Many have been referred elsewhere. They don’t talk about it, though. Like other places mental illness carries a stigma. One of my sisters remains affected by PTSD. Neither of my sisters can stand the Guy Fawkes or New Year fireworks.
I wasn’t there on the day. I visited afterwards.
Remembering is important.