Friday, February 7, 2014

The Gist Of The Pan Am Flight 103 Air Crash Investigation

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By Jayne Rutledge

At 19:03 on Thursday, December 21, 1988, an American airliner exploded mid-air and crashed in the tiny village of Lockerbie, Scotland. Located in Dumfries and Galloway County, Lockerbie is accessible by a major highway, the A74(M). Nearby, there are a train station, a park (King Edward) and a golf course. The Pan Am Flight 103 air crash investigation began shortly thereafter.

The quiet village was changed forever. The flight originated in Frankfurt and was destined for New York City, New York, following a brief stop at London Heathrow to deposit and collect passengers for the onward journey. The aircraft blew up over the village, resulting in the loss of a total of 270 people, 11 of whom were Lockerbie residents. The crash left a six-mile trail of debris.

A few days before the crash, on December 18, the American embassies in Russia and Finland had issued warnings that a terrorist attack was planned on a Pan American airliner traveling from Frankfurt to the United States. Although the airline and the relevant police departments had been notified of the warning, it was not broadly broadcast to prospective passengers. Among the people who were supposed to be on the flight but changed their minds or were prevented at the last minute were South African foreign minister Pik Botha, Indian mechanic Jaswant Basuta (initially considered a suspect) and popular US singing group, the Four Tops.

Records showed that an unaccompanied piece of luggage had been routed from Malta to Frankfurt, where it was loaded onto the feeder flight to London, Pan Am 103A. Police later discovered that the only person ever convicted of the bombing, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, had also boarded that same flight. This was believed to be the suitcase that contained the bomb. Security was later tightened at small airports all around the world.

Fingertip searches of the Lockerbie area in the process of the crash investigation turned up 56 pieces of a suitcase showing extensive bomb damage. A circuit board from the bomb was reported to have been found wrapped inside a child's t-shirt from Malta. The Maltese shopkeeper at first identified the man who bought the shirt as Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, although he later withdrew his remarks.

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was convicted of the bombing at a trial held in the Netherlands, a neutral country in the years 2000 and 2001. He was tried under Scottish law, as that was the site of the crime.

The trial went on for nine months, after which the Libyan national was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, to serve a minimum of 27 years. He was revealed to be suffering from prostate cancer in 2008 and released from prison and flown home to Libya on compassionate grounds by then Scottish Justice, Kenny MacAskill. This was an extremely controversial move, causing anger on both sides of the Atlantic. Rubbing salt into the wound, his countrymen in Libya greeted him as a hero.

The Scottish contingent of the Pan Am Flight 103 air crash investigation was led by Chief Inspector Watson McAteer and John Orr. The American team consisted of CIA personnel Vince Cannistraro and Jim Shaughnessy, along with Robert Muller and Larry Whittaker. The investigators had seen the inside of 13 countries and gathered 15,000 statements, 12,700 name cards and 35,000 photographs.

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