When Pan American World Airways Flight 103 took off from London's Heathrow Airport on its way to New York City at 6:25 p.m. on Dec. 21, most on board were in a holiday mood. The majority were Americans returning home for Christmas, including a large group of U.S. servicemen based in West Germany and 38 students from Syracuse University in upper New York state who had been studying in Europe. One Canadian, actor Paul Freeman of Dundas, Ont., was also on board. Just over 50 minutes later, as the Boeing 747 jumbo jet passed over southern Scotland, something went terribly wrong. It blew apart and crashed in a 300-foothigh ball of flame, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew members. The impact of the crash dug a crater 20 feet deep at the southern end of Lockerbie, a town of 2,500 just 24 km north of the English border. A dozen houses were destroyed and at least 15 people were killed on the ground—making it Britain’s worst air disaster.
The plane’s crew sent no distress signal before the crash. But debris was strewn over a 32-km-wide area, leading air experts to conclude that the jet blew apart before it crashed—as a result of either a major structural defect or a bomb. Speculation over possible sabotage grew when it was revealed that U.S. embassies in Europe were warned on Dec. 5 of a terrorist threat—to be acted upon within the next two weeks—against a U.S.-bound Pan Am flight from Frankfurt, West Germany. Although the doomed jet began its journey in London, Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt. On board were six U.S. state department officials returning home from Beirut and the UN commissioner for Namibia.
An Iranian group claimed responsibility for the crash—saying it was revenging the downing of an Iranian jumbo jet in July by a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf. But terrorism experts said that a radical Palestinian group might have planted a bomb to discredit PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s recent peace initiative. Air disaster experts said that it could be weeks before they would know what had happened. Meanwhile, for the people of Lockerbie, the Christmas peace had been irreparably shattered.
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