Gary Katz, CBC News Online | Updated August 13, 2003
On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 left London heading for New York. Including the crew there were 259 people on board. Over the village of Lockerbie, Scotland the plane exploded and pieces fell into two rows of houses, killing 11 people on the ground. The final toll was 270 dead. One witness said "…the sky was actually raining fire."
The crash left a deep gouge in the earth and destroyed several houses in Lockerbie (CP photo)
By the following week investigators were certain: a bomb brought the plane down.
Airplane disasters hold a special horror. Perhaps because we've been in the air for such a tiny part of our time on the planet. Perhaps because we know it's unnatural, that a plane isn't a vehicle, it's a life support system that moves. If your car sputters and dies on the road out of Regina you make sure you pull far enough off that no one hits you in the trunk. Sputter and die six miles over anywhere and it's a different story.
270 people were killed when the plane went down. Two of them were Canadians.
Perhaps it's because we can all imagine it so clearly, so poignantly. Isolated from all that's comforting and familiar, trapped in a container with hundreds of strangers, perhaps with a loved one whose safety is as important to you as your own. The terror of imminent death, the smell of human fear, the unrealized prayers for salvation.
To be told that the victims died so quickly they didn't have time for terror is a classic case of cold comfort. The terror is ongoing for those left behind. If there's any consolation to be had it's in trying to make sure it never happens again, at least not this way.
So after every air disaster enormous numbers of dollars are spent raking, delving, questioning, enhancing, reconstructing. Everyone wants to prevent a recurrence, the government, the airline, the insurance company, the relatives, any one of us who might ever want to fly again.
An American couple visits the memorial stone in Lockerbie's Garden of Remembrance (CP photo)
And so it was after the disaster that came to be known for the tiny Scottish town. Immediate announcements of increased airline security. Investigations leading to more announcements of increased airline security. There must be no more bombs on planes.
But there was something else to be settled after Lockerbie: Punishment and retribution for a crime of terror. We feel the need to make it clear: there will be punishment for such an act. Call it attacking the human failure.