The night fire and victims rained on Lockerbie

Posted at 08/20/09 9:31 PM

EDINBURGH - As a police inspector in Lockerbie on December 21, 1988, George Stobbs was one of the first people to survey the carnage left by the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town.

Now aged 75 and retired, the events of that night on which 270 people lost their lives are etched on his memory forever.

Stobbs was at home at the time, but on hearing the news he headed into town. Unbelieving at first that such a disaster could befall a place like Lockerbie, set in the rolling hills near the English border, the damage was soon clear.

"As I started to walk into town I saw a big ball of flames shoot up in the sky from the direction of Sherwood Crescent," a residential street just off the main road, Stobbs told AFP.

He headed to the police station, where "I found a huge hole in the roof that definitely wasn't there when I left a couple of hours earlier".

"I got the police torch and a radio and headed out. The street was littered with anything you could think about -- trees, stones, grass, metal and of course body remains, although I wasn't aware of it at the time," he said.

"I got to the ambulance depot and saw a body lying there. It was the body of a woman. I thought she had come outside and been hit by something. I had no idea that she fell out of the sky."

There was oil all over the street, and Stobbs feared the whole place could go up in flames, so, shocked, he carried on walking.

Arriving at Sherwood Crescent he saw a huge crater formed by the fuselage of the plane, which had exploded less than an hour into the flight from London to New York in what is Britain's worst ever terrorist attack.

"It was all lit up because of the fire. It was just burning away because of all the aviation fuel. There was a huge crater, about 30 foot deep and about 100 foot long. Gas had leaked out and spread the flames," he said.

"The hedges were on fire and it eventually set the houses on fire. Everything was on fire."

The homes at Sherwood Crescent have been rebuilt and the street now appears a normal, leafy residential road. A small memorial to those that died is all that remains of the tragedy there.

Stobbs said the fire brigade struggled to tackle the flames because one of the plane's engines had fallen on top of a major water pipe in a field and cut off the supply. "So there was no water," he said.

All this time he believed that a military aircraft, which routinely flew over Lockerbie, had crashed in a terrible accident.

"Then they found the nose cone of a (Boeing) 747, the cockpit, lying at Tundergarth," a village a few miles from Lockerbie, he recalled.

"That was when we realised what had happened, and the next thing was -- where are all the people?"

He said he saw part of the plane at Rosebank Crescent, back in town, with "about 60 people still where they were sitting. There were people scattered all over the countryside. The furthest person was five miles away."

All 259 people on board the flight and 11 people on the ground died.

During that night and in the first few days afterwards, Stobbs said he was "running on high octane", but he refused to let it get to him.

"We just happened to be the people under it when it came down. It just had to happen there and that was it," he said. "I had a couple of low days, especially around Christmas, but you had to get on with it."

However, he refused to discuss the fate of the only man convicted of the attack, former Libyan agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, who was released Wednesday on compassionate grounds as he has terminal cancer.

He would not even mention his name.