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The Price of Terror
The Darkest Day
It happened on the darkest day of the year, December 21, 1988: a moonless, dank winter night in the town of Lockerbie, in southern Scotland. Overhead, a little more than a half hour into its flight from London to New York, a Boeing 747 had just leveled off at 31,000 feet, making a steady 500 miles an hour against a quartering wind from the west. The airplane carried 243 passengers, most of them Americans flying home for the holidays, and a crew of 16.
We know a lot about these people. The FBI investigated their families and friends, reporters profiled them, lawyers pored over their lives and entered the facts into evidence. A year later, a woman named Georgia Nucci, whose son was a passenger on that airplane, compiled their biographies and photographs into a memorial book with a midnight-blue cover. The faces in the book were mostly young. Even the business executives in first class were mostly in their thirties. The others were families on holiday, soldiers stationed overseas, college students returning from a Syracuse University semester-abroad program. They were looking forward to sleeping in their own beds again, seeing their parents and friends for Christmas.
There were more than a dozen young children on the airplane. LaWanda Thomas, twenty-one years old, an Air Force technician stationed in West Germany, was returning to her family in Michigan with her son, who was less than three months old. Om and Shanti Dixit, middle-aged husband and wife, were flying home to America after their son's wedding in India, with their pretty twenty-nine-year-old daughter and her two young children. They hadflown first to Germany, where they caught the origination of this flight, which went from Frankfurt to London to New York and on to Detroit: Pan American 103.
The 747 was a gigantic object, improbably suspended nearly six miles off the ground by the insubstantial force of air flowing under its wings. At takeoff it had weighed a little over 700,000 pounds, about a third of which was jet fuel. The passengers weighed an estimated 40,000 pounds, together with their carry-on luggage. There was 66,452 pounds of luggage and freight in five compartments. Of that vast weight, an estimated twelve ounces, unknown to anyone on board, consisted of a Czech-made plastic explosive known as Semtex, hidden inside an inconspicuous brown Samsonite suitcase. Nearby an electronic timer was silently counting up the seconds. The men who had put the Semtex on the plane had been skillful and deliberate. They had molded it to fit inside the hollows of a Toshiba cassette player, packed the player in a suitcase and filled the suitcase with an assortment of seemingly innocent clothing—although, as it turned out, they could just as well have filled the suitcase with pink sticks of dynamite and written Death to America on the inside lid, because no one ever looked inside.
It happened just past 7:00 P.M., as the timer closed a circuit that triggered a detonator embedded in the explosive. The Semtex instantaneously transformed itself into a ball of superheated gas. The suitcase had been loaded near the side wall of a baggage container, and the container was at the end of the row, so that when the bomb went off it was only twenty-five inches from the aluminum skin of the airplane. On the other side of the hull was the thin air of 31,000 feet. The blast tore a hole the size of a basketball in the fuselage. Shock waves raced along the curved hull; the floor buckled and the frame cracked at a point just forward of the wings. The front of the plane—the cockpit, first-class, and business-class cabins—was bent back to the right, and in separating, knocked off the number 3 engine, inboard on the right side. Within three seconds after the explosion, the airplane had broken open and begun spilling passengers into the air.
There are questions here perhaps better left unspoken. But the people who loved those passengers want to know how it felt at that very moment. Did the explosion cut off their oxygen and kill them at once? Did it render them unconscious? Or, falling through the black sky toward oblivion, were they aware of what was happening to them? At that instant the fates of several hundred unrelated people were suddenly joined, together with the families waiting and the people on the ground toward whose roofs 100 tons of explosive jet fuel was heading. What, exactly, were they feeling?
Cold, certainly; fifty-degree-below-zero cold, and darkness, and the 500-mile-an-hour wind of their momentum, strong enough to strip the shirts off their backs. Drink carts, luggage, and seats would have turned into projectiles, along with the babies, ripped from their mothers' laps. The cabin pressure, ordinarily kept at the equivalent of about 3,000 feet above sea level, would have instantly dropped to the level of the surrounding atmosphere, leaving them all gasping for oxygen.
And then they would have started to fall. It would have taken a surprisingly long time. A human body tossed into the air at 31,000 feet quickly reaches a velocity of around 250 feet per second, or 160 miles an hour, but as the density of the air increases at lower altitudes it actually slows, and hits the ground at around 120 miles an hour. Those who were tossed out of the plane right after the explosion probably took about three minutes to fall. "They most likely would have a tendency to start to tumble or rotate a little bit," an accident expert testified some years later, "but the natural inclination for the arms and legs to spread would cause them to terminate rotation and somewhat flatten out." Those who remained with the front part of the plane—the cockpit crew and most first-class . . .The Price of Terror. Copyright © by Allan Gerson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.