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Bombs are Weapons of Mass Distruction

Pan Am Flight 103

Largest Crime Scene Ever Processed


Posted Tuesday October 3rd 2023

FBI Pan Am Flight 103
Pan Am Flight 103
Lockerbie, Scotland

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, flying from London to New York city, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and eleven on the ground. The crime scene, over 845 square miles, was the largest one ever processed.

The FBI had jurisdiction if an American was killed or injured during a terrorist attack, and perpetrators could be prosecuted in a US court. Four days later, it was determined that a bomb had downed the plane. FBI agents and Scottish police crawled over the scene on hands and knees, looking for the smallest pieces of evidence. Several weeks later, they found a small fragment of a circuit board blasted into the baggage container, which led FBI and CIA forensic specialists to discover that the bomb had been hidden inside a Toshiba 2 speaker radio cassette player inside a piece of luggage.

The collection took two full years. It was the most complex terrorism case the FBI investigated before 9/11. The FBI interviewed over 10,000 people in dozens of countries. One key piece of evidence, found a year into the investigation, was another circuit board fragment, smaller than a thumbnail. Six months later, it was identified as a piece of a Swiss timer. The FBI sent agents to Switzerland to see who bought it. Eventually, all evidence pointed to Libya, which carried out the bombing in retaliation for US actions against Muammar Gaddafi.

On January 31, 2001, one of the two Libyan intelligence operatives identified was convicted. Since he formally accepted responsibility for the bombing, the Libyan government had agreed to pay restitution to the victims families.

The FBI created the Victim Assistance Program to assist the families through the immediate aftermath and the long investigation and trial. This case changed the way the FBI assists victims of crimes. Many agents formed personal friendships with Flight 103 family members, and every year the FBI honors the victims of 103.

Pan Am 103 Toshiba Radio
Toshiba Radio

Toshiba radio like the one the bomb was hidden in. Toshiba sent several radios, including this one, to the FBI for testing, and several were used in bomb trials.

Pan Am Flight 103

WIKIPEDIA Pan Am Flight 103 (PA103/PAA103)
It was a regularly scheduled Pan Am transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit via a stopover in London and another in New York City. The transatlantic leg of the route was operated by Clipper Maid of the Seas, a Boeing 747-121 registered N739PA. Shortly after 19:00 on 21 December 1988, while the aircraft was in flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, it was destroyed by a bomb that had been planted on board, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew in what became known as the Lockerbie bombing. Large sections of the aircraft crashed in a residential street in Lockerbie, killing 11 residents. With a total of 270 fatalities, it is one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of the United Kingdom, as well as its deadliest aviation disaster ever.

Following a three-year joint investigation by Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), arrest warrants were issued for two Libyan nationals in November 1991. In 1999, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi handed over the two men for trial at Camp Zeist, the Netherlands, after protracted negotiations and UN sanctions. In 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was jailed for life after being found guilty of 270 counts of murder in connection with the bombing. In August 2009, he was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in May 2012 as the only person to be convicted for the attack.

In 2003, Gaddafi accepted Libya's responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and paid compensation to the families of the victims, although he maintained that he had never given the order for the attack. Acceptance of responsibility was part of a series of requirements laid out by a UN resolution for sanctions against Libya to be lifted. Libya said it had to accept responsibility due to Megrahi's status as a government employee.

During the First Libyan Civil War in 2011, former Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdul Jalil claimed that the Libyan leader had personally ordered the bombing, while investigators have long believed that Megrahi did not act alone, and have been reported as questioning retired Stasi agents about a possible role in the attack.

Some relatives of the dead, including Lockerbie campaigner Jim Swire, believe the bomb was planted at Heathrow Airport, and not sent via feeder flights from Malta, as per the US and UK governments. A sleeper cell belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) had been operating in West Germany in the months before the Pan Am bombing.

In 2020, US authorities indicted the Tunisia resident and Libyan national Abu Agila Mohammad Mas'ud Kheir Al-Marimi, who was 37 years old at the time of the incident, for participating in the bombing. He was taken into custody in December 2022.

On its arrival at Heathrow Terminal 3 on the day of the disaster, the passengers and their luggage (as well as an unaccompanied suitcase which was part of the interline luggage on the feeder flight) were transferred directly to Clipper Maid of the Seas, whose previous flight had originated from Los Angeles and arrived via San Francisco. The plane, which operated the flight's transatlantic leg, pushed back from the terminal at 18:04 and took off from runway 27R at 18:25, bound for New York JFK Airport and then Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. Contrary to many popular accounts of the disaster (though repeated, with reference, below), the flight, which had a scheduled gate departure time of 18:00, left Heathrow airport on time.

Loss of contact
At 18:58, the aircraft established two-way radio contact with Shanwick Oceanic Area Control in Prestwick on 123.95 MHz.

Clipper Maid of the Seas approached the corner of the Solway Firth at 19:01, and crossed the coast at 19:02 UTC. On scope, the aircraft showed transponder code, or "squawk", 0357 and flight level 310. At this point, the Clipper Maid of the Seas was flying at 31,000 feet (9,400 m) on a heading of 316 magnetic, and at a speed of 313 kn (580 km/h; 360 mph) calibrated airspeed. Subsequent analysis of the radar returns by RSRE concluded that the aircraft was tracking 321 (grid) and travelling at a ground speed of 803 km/h (499 mph; 434 kn).

At 19:02:44, Alan Topp, the clearance delivery officer at Shanwick, transmitted its oceanic route clearance. The aircraft did not acknowledge this message. Clipper Maid of the Seas' "squawk" then flickered off. Air traffic control tried to make contact with the flight, with no response. Then a loud noise was recorded on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) at 19:02:50. Five radar echoes fanning out appeared, instead of one. Comparison of the CVR to the radar returns showed that, eight seconds after the explosion, the wreckage had a 1-nautical-mile (1.9 km) spread. A British Airways pilot, flying the London–Glasgow shuttle near Carlisle, called Scottish authorities to report that he could see a huge fire on the ground.

Disintegration of aircraft
The explosion punched a 50 cm (20 in) hole on the left side of the fuselage. Investigators from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concluded that no emergency procedures had been started in the cockpit. The CVR, located in the tail section of the aircraft, was found in a field by police searchers within 24 hours. No distress call was recorded; a 180-millisecond hissing noise could be heard as the explosion destroyed the aircraft's communications center. The explosion in the aircraft hold was magnified by the uncontrolled decompression of the fuselage - a large difference in pressure between the aircraft's interior and exterior. The aircraft's elevator- and rudder-control cables had been disrupted and the fuselage pitched downwards and to the left.

Investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch of the British Department for Transport concluded that the nose of the aircraft was blown off and separated from the main fuselage within three seconds of the explosion. The nose cone was briefly held on by a band of metal, but facing aft, like the lid of a can. It then sheared off, up, and backwards to starboard, striking off the number-three engine and landing some distance outside the town, on a hill in Tundergarth.

Fuselage impact
The fuselage continued moving forward and down until it reached 19,000 ft, when its dive became nearly vertical. Due to the extreme flutter, the vertical stabilizer disintegrated, which in turn produced large yawing movements. As the forward fuselage continued to disintegrate, the flying debris tore off both of the horizontal stabilizers, while the rear fuselage, the remaining three engines, and the fin torque box separated. The rear fuselage, parts of the baggage hold, and three landing gear units landed at Rosebank Crescent. The fuselage consisting of the main wing box structure landed in Sherwood Crescent, destroying three homes and creating a large impact crater. The 200,000 lbs of jet fuel ignited by the impact started fires, which destroyed several additional houses. Investigators determined that both wings had landed in the Sherwood Crescent crater, saying, "the total absence of debris from the wing primary structure found remote from the crater confirmed the initial impression that the complete wing box structure had been present at the main impact."

The British Geological Survey 23 kilometres (14 mi) away at Eskdalemuir registered a seismic event at 19:03:36 measuring 1.6 on the moment magnitude scale, which was attributed to the impact. According to the report, the rest of the wreckage composed of "the complete fuselage forward of approximately station 480 to station 380 and incorporating the flight deck and nose landing gear was found as one piece in a field approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) east of Lockerbie." This field, located opposite Tundergarth Church, is where the wreckage most easily identified with images of the accident in the media fell, having fallen "almost flat on its left side, but with a slight nose-down attitude."

All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed, as were 11 residents of Lockerbie on the ground. Of the 270 total fatalities, 190 were American citizens and 43 were British citizens. Nineteen other nationalities were represented, with four or fewer passengers per country.

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