When I boarded the late train from Euston on 21 December 1988, I felt I was living in two worlds simultaneously. The news editor had told me get to Lockerbie fast. “A plane’s gone down. We don’t know why, but it sounds bad.” I sat in the carriage wondering how bad, while Charles Kennedy joined the grandees of the Scottish Labour party at the bar celebrating the start of the Christmas holiday, unaware in those days before mobile phones that before they reached Glasgow they would pass the biggest crime scene in British history.
I got off at Lockerbie station and went to find the plane. As the morning brightened, I looked back at my route across the fields and learnt the hard way that when a bomb takes out a 747, the jet does not fall to earth in one neat piece but shatters and ejects wreckage for miles. For as far as I could see, suitcases, clothes, twisted pieces of fuselage and the bodies of the slain dotted the landscape. Sophisticated reporters despise the cliche about finding teddy bears at the scene of an air crash and being amazed that they had escaped unscathed. But I found it unavoidable and marvelled that miniature bottles of wine had survived intact when all those who were meant to drink them had perished.
“We just wish we could do more to comfort the relatives of the dead,” said Margaret Thatcher. “But everything that can be done will be done.”
Her Conservative government did not do it then and our Labour government is not doing it now. The controversy about the proposed release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the murder of 270 civilians, is missing, quite spectacularly, how the authorities could still at this late date make amends.
Much drivel is filling the media about a “split” between the British and American relatives of the dead.
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