The Chilling Story Of The Lockerbie Bombing, When Pan Am Flight 103 Plummeted Into A Small Scottish Town

Published May 23, 2023
Updated May 26, 2023

On December 21, 1988, the deadliest terrorist attack in U.K. history occurred when a bomb planted on Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people aboard.

Pan Am Flight 103

AFP/Getty ImagesInvestigators examining the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 and looking for survivors.

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from London en route to New York City. Thirty-eight minutes later, the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. It wasn’t a tragic accident. Someone had planted a bomb.

The subsequent investigation into the so-called Lockerbie bombing unveiled a complex conspiracy involving Libyan intelligence agents and a powerful desire for revenge. Though suspects were quickly identified, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 would have far-reaching implications.

To this day, Scottish and American teams continue to investigate the case.

The Night Of The Lockerbie Bombing

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off in London, England, with 243 passengers and 16 crew members onboard around 6:30 p.m. Bound for New York City, the Boeing 747 held many passengers headed home for the holidays, including 35 study-abroad students from Syracuse University.

Meanwhile, in Lockerbie, Scotland — a small town in the south of the country — most people were starting to settle down for the night. For them, and for the plane passing above their head, all seemed well.

But just 38 minutes into Pan Am Flight 103’s journey, an explosion rocked the aircraft. According to The Guardian, evidence suggests that the passengers onboard were plunged into darkness. Then, as the forward fuselage began to disintegrate, the nose of the plane tore off, pummeling them with cold.

Some were sucked into the engine. Some were propelled into the night sky. Most, however, were trapped in two large sections of the rapidly falling plane, some 60 percent of whom were still alive. It’s impossible to know, however, if anyone was still conscious as the plane plummeted to the earth.

Meanwhile, residents of Lockerbie heard a terrible roar as the ground shook around them (the impact of the plane measured 1.6 on the Richter scale). Bodies fell from the sky, and remnants of the plane crashed through the town. As the FBI found, the wings and the middle part of the fuselage slammed into several homes on Sherwood Crescent, killing 11 people there.

When rescue teams arrived, they came upon a nightmarish scene. Bodies littered the ground, Lockerbie residents wandered around in disbelief, fires roared, and the plane had left a 150-foot-long hole across the tiny town.

Lockerbie After The Bombing

Peter GieseckeThe aftermath of the plane crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, as recorded by Lockerbie resident Peter Giesecke.

“There was a great roaring noise and flames coming out of a great big hole in the ground and dense, dense smoke,” George Stobbs, the senior police inspector with the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary at the time, told the FBI. “Terrific heat. I actually saw a wrought iron gate melting. It was like it was made of butter, and it was dripping.”

In total, 300 tons of plane debris spread out over 845 square miles. Every passenger on board had died in the crash, including 190 Americans. In all, the victims from Pan Am Flight 103 included 21 nationalities. But the Associated Press reports that two people could have survived the devastating crash — if only medical personnel had reached them sooner.

The sheer level of devastation sparked international outrage. Soon, officials began the arduous process of piecing together what happened that night.

Investigating Pan Am Flight 103

Debris After Lockerbie Bombing

Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie Air Disaster Archives, Syracuse University LibrariesRescue workers comb through debris in Lockerbie’s Rosebank neighborhood.

Given the number of American citizens on Pan Am Flight 103, the investigation into what happened in Lockerbie involved both Scottish officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Both knew that the process wouldn’t be easy. More than 10,000 pieces of evidence had been collected and the total search area spanned hundreds of miles.

But by July 1990, the investigators were able to come to a grim conclusion: a bomb had taken down Pan Am Flight 103.

They determined that the explosion had come from the forward cargo hold, where a brown Samsonite suitcase containing a radio cassette holder had also contained a bomb. What’s more, investigators discovered that dozens of scraps of clothing with traces of the explosive came from the same place: the Malta Trading Company.

Reconstruction Of Pan Am Flight 103

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty ImagesInvestigators collected over 10,000 pieces from the crash, reconstructing the flight to get a better understanding of what happened that night.

As The Guardian reports, this discovery broke open the case. Investigators were able to pinpoint a suitcase that had been transferred from Malta to Pan Am Flight 103, as well as the Maltese store where the clothing had come from. When they spoke to the store owner, he remembered selling the clothing to a Libyan. The man stuck out in the store owner’s memory because he seemed indifferent about the sizes of the clothing or its price.

As The New York Times reports, the store owner cooperated with investigators, and eventually identified one of their suspects as the clothing buyer: a Libyan intelligence officer named Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.

The head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines, the U.S. Justice Department reports that Megrahi was ordered to fly to Malta by Libyan intelligence in order to meet with two other co-conspirators: Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah.

Megrahi instructed Mas’ud to set a timer on their bomb for 11 hours. The three then placed the device into a cassette player, positioned it in the suitcase, and put the suitcase on a conveyer belt in the airport.

Then, investigators believe, they waited.

Megrahi and Fhimah were indicted on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder, and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act in 1991, and charges were announced against Mas’ud in 2022. But in the decades to come, their arrests and trials would provide only scant answers.

The Motivation Behind The Lockerbie Bombing

Abdel Basset Ali Al Megrahi

Time Life Pictures/FBI/Getty ImagesInvestigators believe Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was one of many responsible for the bombing.

In 1999, Megrahi and Fhimah were extradited from Libya to the Netherlands, under the custody of the United Nations. Their trial began on May 3, 2000, during which Megrahi was found guilty — and sentenced to a minimum of 27 years in jail — and Fhimah was acquitted.

Throughout their arrest, trial, and detainment, neither Megrahi nor Fhimah admitted to being involved in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In addition, the testimony of some witnesses, including the Maltese store owner, have since come under scrutiny, according to The New York Times.

Despite the men’s silence, authorities have speculated that the motive behind the attack was likely revenge. HISTORY notes that the Libyans may have wanted to retaliate against a 1986 strike which killed Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s young daughter, or avenge the U.S.’s accidental downing of Iran Air Flight 655, which killed 290 people in 1988.

But the story of the Lockerbie bombing didn’t end there. Megrahni was released from prison in 2009 on “compassionate grounds” after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, a move that deeply angered American officials. He died three years later in 2012.

And on December 21, 2020, the 34th anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, US Attorney General William Barr announced criminal charges against Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir Al-Marimi for his role in the Lockerbie disaster. Mas’ud was released into U.S. custody in 2022. He will face trial and potentially serve a life sentence if a jury finds him guilty.

As such, the ramifications of the terrorist attack continue to this day.

The Legacy Of Pan Am Flight 103

Pan Am Flight 103 Aftermath

John Giles/PA Images via Getty ImagesPolice officers view a row of seats from the flight.

Not only have the legal proceedings against the Lockerbie bombing suspects echoed through time. So has the pain of the victims’ families.

Every year, Syracuse University holds a memorial to honor the 35 students who lost their lives in the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster.

The school’s chancellor, Melvin Eggers, vowed in a statement that the “sons and daughters will be remembered at Syracuse University so long as any of us shall live and so long as the university shall stand.”

In Washington D.C., a traditional Scottish cairn memorializes the lives lost in the disaster. The base of the cairn reads:

“On 21 December 1988, a terrorist bomb destroyed Pan American Airlines Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on board and 11 on the ground. The 270 Scottish stones which compose this memorial cairn commemorate those who lost their lives in this attack against America.”

Lockerbie Bombing Monument

Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National CemeteryThe cairn, a traditional Scottish monument honoring the dead, stands in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Even today, families await more news regarding the events that led to their loved ones’ deaths on the night of December 21, 1988. While they wait, they keep their loved ones’ memories alive by establishing foundations and scholarships in their names, meeting with other families impacted by the disaster, and advocating for stronger airport security.

“There’s a saying that the dead are still with us as long as someone speaks their name,” said Kathryn Turman, the FBI’s Victim Services Division assistant director. “That’s one of the things that we do in the FBI, and we do well, is we speak their names. We continue to do that.”

After reading about Pan Am Flight 103, learn about the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 73. Then, discover the story of Todd Beamer, the courageous hero who led a revolt against hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93 during 9/11.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is a former Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.