Remembering Lockerbie, 30 years on
Thirty years ago this day '“ December 21, 1988 '“ the Borders region was rocked to the core as Pan Am flight 103 fell from the sky onto the town of Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, killing 270 people.
There were many specially-trained people from the region who answered the call for help on that fateful night.
Ambulance crews from Hawick and Galashiels were dispatched, along with two fire tenders from Hawick and around 20 policemen from the region.
One of the responders from the Borders was Hawick policeman Dougie Forsyth.
Back in 2011, he recalled: “I was on traffic backshift and got the call to go to Lockerbie.
“We got to Langholm and then went across past Tundergarth where the nose section of the plane was lying. When we saw it in a field, we realised something serious had happened.
“We were involved in the search for survivors but, of course, we didn’t find any.
“That experience has remained with me ever since.”
At the time, local fire chief Norman Elliot said it was a scene of “utter devastation and total carnage,” while others talked of the harrowing task of recovering the bodies.
The Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue team were in Selkirk’s Cross Keys Inn for festive drinks when the call came through.
On the group’s Facebook page, one of the team members recalled: “We were lucky in that many of the team members carried their rucksacks fully packed in their cars, which meant that we could immediately deploy.
“Despite this many of the members had little or no personal equipment as they had left straight from the pub, yet they searched for several days like this without any complaints.
“One member remained behind initially to make calls to other team members and to bring additional equipment. Besides the team members’ personal head torches, the team had three handmade search lights which had batteries inside wooden boxes which made them very heavy. The team at the time were poorly equipped for incidents of this scale. Our major incident kit at the time consisted of a rucksack with a hundred crepe bandages, 100 dressings and 100 triangular bandages.”
The member described their arrival at the scene. He said: “The town was still on fire when we arrived with a very strong smell of aviation fuel and smoke hung in the air. There were blue lights everywhere.”
He went on to describe the search: “We were given another couple of sectors to search by the RAF which were on the hills above Tundergarth.
“We searched the hillside in lines and whenever we found a body a whistle blew, the line stopped and a note was taken of the coordinates of the location.
“We found a number of the passengers including children and crew members in this area, some were still strapped in their seats.
“We had been given a roll of sticky white labels by the RAF with which to tag the bodies and remains with the time, the person and the team that had found them. TL took a note of the grid reference of the bodies to give to the RAF search command and control in Lockerbie.
“Some months after we received a telephone call from the police asking if any of our team required counselling. No-one understood the importance of this at the time and we refused it.
“The way we coped was to meet from time to time to sit down and discuss what we had witnessed, very often sitting in the Cross Keys having a pint.
“Ironically several weeks prior to Lockerbie, the local council had organised a joint major disaster exercise involving an aircraft crash. We had asked to be involved, but the organisers declined our involvement as they did not think we would ever be utilised in this type of situation.
“It was an experience that we will never forget, the whole incident was so surreal and very traumatic. The team leader was proud to have led such a magnificent group of members, who all gave 100 percent with basic equipment and little experience and not a bit of complaint.
“Some of us had been involved with several military and civilian air crashes in the previous years but nothing could have prepared any of the emergency services for such a magnitude of destruction. Then as now, our hearts and thoughts go out to the victims and their families.”
Another of the teams sent out was the Search and Rescue Dogs Association (SARDA).
Lauder’s Douglas Hope was a part of that team, who searched the wreckage of homes in Lockerbie and surrounding area with their dogs. Along with other dog handlers, they recovered 14 bodies in the first five hours from midnight, and more in the following days.
But they also found articles which would go on to help identify those who had died.
At the time, he said: “The articles we found, purses, briefcases and other belongings, will all help identify the victims.
“It’s amazing that this should have happened so soon after our simulation of an air crash in Galashiels.
“Nobody believed it would ever happen. We just thought we were going through the motions.”
South of Scotland MEP Alasdair Hutton expressed his “numb horror” after visiting the scene, but praised the work of Borders responders.
He said at the time: “I was deeply shoocked at the extent of the damage and the obvious force which had hit the area, but I was tremendously impressed by the efficiency of the emergency operation.
“No tribute could be high enough for the way in which the local emergency services moved smoothly into action to deal with a disaster the scale of which could not have been anticipated.”
See next week’s Southern Reporter for more on the anniversary of the day terror struck southern Scotland.