Saturday 21 December 2013

Another day which will long live on in Infamy

Barely a month ago I was reminiscing about an infamous event which occurred 50 years ago, and how, despite my tender age at the time, like many others I remembered vividly where I was when I heard the news.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the destruction of PanAmerican Airlines Flight 103 from London to New York, over Lockerbie, in the borders of Scotland, at approximately 7pm on Wednesday 21st December, 1988.  Like the assassination of President Kennedy, I have a vivid recollection of where and when I heard the news.

I was travelling to Barrow in Furness with one of my bosses, Archie, for a meeting at the Vickers Shipbuilders' Trident Submarine yard.  When the train left Preston, the guard walked through announcing that news was coming in of an airliner exploding over southern Scotland.  That was about all he could tell us then, but we listened to updates as we were driven by car from Lancaster Station to Barrow, and when we arrived at the hotel we watched TV bulletins.

I don’t think we really had much inkling of quite how horrific this crime was at that time.  It was, after all, dark so the full extent of the destruction was not visible, and it was not yet confirmed that the explosion was a result of terrorist action.  We could however see that the small town of Lockerbie had suffered catastrophic and fatal damage from falling parts of the plane – an entire wing, full of fuel, as it turned out.

This had been a miserable couple of days for me.  My then girlfriend had just done a “Dear John” on me and I was still reeling from the shock and grief.  The news however brought home to me that many others would be far more shocked, and have far greater reason to grieve, than I.

The trip was eventful in other ways too.  The purpose of our visit to Barrow was to discuss the shipbuilder’s claims for “capital allowances” on the cost of construction of the yard where the Trident boats were being built, at almost unimaginable expense, with the company’s tax inspector.  Somehow, and the company staff swore it was pure co-incidence, it came to pass that the hull of one of the subs had to be moved across the yard for the next phase of construction.  A vessel the size of a modern cross-channel ferry, with about 7 or 8 decks inside its hull towering high above us as we stood on the floor of the yard, was slowly moved on a series of rail-borne bogies.  This was the first and last time I have ever seen, in reality, that cartoon image of someone’s jaw literally dropping.  The inspector immediately agreed the tax allowance claim, measured in hundreds of millions.

And finally,  a revelation about my boss, Archie.  He had always struck me as a miserable, grumpy git, a true “Dour Scot”, and I had been dreading the thought of spending a couple of evenings in his exclusive company, but he turned out to be an amusing and thoughtful companion, and a good listener to my tales of woe.

Seven years later, in November 1995, my wife and I had a long weekend in Washington.  We paid a visit, as one does, to the Arlington National Cemetery, to see John F Kennedy’s grave.  While there, we came across a cairn, a neatly constructed pile of small rocks, 270 of them, one for each of the victims in the aircraft or on the ground, built in memorial to the incident.  It is almost impossible to remain dry-eyed in front of this monument.

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