Pan Am Jet Crashes in Scotland, Killing 270By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 22, 1988; Page A01
LOCKERBIE, SCOTLAND, DEC. 22 (THURSDAY) -- A Pan American jumbo jet bound from London to New York crashed into this Scottish town last night, apparently killing all 258 persons aboard. [Note: Later reports indicated that 259 people died aboard the aircraft and 11 were killed on the ground].
The Boeing 747 slammed into a gasoline station and a row of houses in this small town of 2,500 residents, 15 miles north of the English border, igniting a fireball that rose up to 300 feet into the sky.
A police official in the nearby town of Dumfries reported that at least 15 people had been killed on the ground. Local hospitals said 12 seriously burned residents had been rushed in for treatment.
There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash, which took place in clear weather less than an hour's flight time from London.
"There were no mayday signals," a Pan Am vice president, Jeff Kriendler, told reporters in New York last night. The plane had left London's Heathrow Airport at 6:25 p.m. local time (1:25 p.m. EST), and the last contact from the crew was at 7:15 p.m., when the plane was cruising at 31,000 feet, Kriendler said. He added that it was "precisely on course" when it disappeared from radar screens.
As rescue teams reached the crash scene, about 275 miles northwest of London, there were indications of an explosion aboard the plane. The jet's cabin door was found about 10 miles from the rest of the cockpit, while an engine was found on a highway outside town. At least one witness said the plane may have been on fire before it hit the ground.
The plane, Pan Am Flight 103, "disappeared from radar contact at 7:15 p.m.," British Department of Transport spokesman Mike Vertigans said in a telephone interview. Kriendler gave the time the plane hit the ground as 7:22 p.m. Britain's Civil Aviation Authority said Scottish air controllers had talked to the crew minutes before the crash and received no indication of any problem.
British aviation officials denied reports that the 747 may have hit another plane.
Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkin told United Press International, "The aircraft clearly experienced some form of explosion, which has resulted in many parts of the aircraft falling in many different locations -- that we know. But what might have caused that to happen, I'm sorry, I could not even speculate."
Kriendler said Pan Am would not release a passenger list until next of kin were notified. Officials at New York's Syracuse University said 38 students returning from studies in London were on the flight.
Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt as a Boeing 727 and changed to the 747 at Heathrow, where additional passengers, many carrying Christmas packages, boarded. A total of 243 passengers and a crew of 15 were aboard the 747, which had been scheduled to land at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at 9:19 p.m.
The flight was to end in Detroit, Mich., where family members gathered last night at the time the plane was due.
The first passenger identified was the United Nations commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson of Sweden. A U.N. spokesman said Carlsson was on his way back from a seminar in Brussels to attend a ceremony for the three-nation agreement on Namibia that is to be signed at the United Nations today.
Syracuse University spokeswoman Kerry Burns said the 38 students aboard were sophomores, juniors and seniors taking part in Syracuse's year-in-London studies program.
The Associated Press said its director of international communications, John Mulroy, was a passenger along with his son and daughter-in-law.
A spokesman for Volkswagen of America, in Troy, Mich., said its senior vice president, James Fuller, and director of marketing, Lou Morengo, were on the plane.
Pan Am spokesman Kriendler said the airline had received "no threats, no indication that anything was wrong." He said "there were no indications prior to the flight that there were any problems on board the aircraft," and "no signs that inclement weather was a factor."
Pan Am has particularly stringent security procedures at Heathrow, involving a three-stage check of passengers' baggage beginning before check-in and concluding with a search of hand luggage at the Pan Am departure lounge, according to travelers.
Kriendler said the airline was sending an investigating team to the scene last night. A team of 10 British air safety experts was being assembled to go to Lockerbie this morning, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it would send an investigator to assist in the probe.
Royal Air Force helicopters from England and Scotland were rushed to the crash scene. U.S. Ambassador Charles Price was reported flying from London by military aircraft to join Douglas Jones, the U.S. consul general in Edinburgh, at the scene.
Sam Anderson, 46, a gasoline truck driver in Lockerbie, whose house was in the plane's path, said early this morning, "There was just a rumble, I thought it was thunder, then came a white flash, and then an orange flash." Anderson said he ran out the back of his house and saw hot orange fragments "dropping like from a volcano."
Anderson said police told him they had found 41 bodies along a small hill that rises from a field behind his home.
"It was devastating, really devastating, I've never seen anything like it," said Anderson. The main road leading into Lockerbie, about 100 yards from Anderson's home, was covered with scorched timber, pieces of masonry and shards of metal, none larger than several feet square. About 40 row houses along the main road were burned to the ground.
Graham Byerley, who works at a hotel a half mile from the crash site, told the British Broadcasting Corp. television last night, "We initially heard a rumbling over the hotel. We thought the roof was falling in. And then we heard a tremendous shudder on the ground, as if in an earthquake. Then we saw sparks, then this enormous ball of flames going about 200 or 300 feet into the air. There was debris flying everywhere."
"We tried to get near the plane, but it was completely on fire," John Glasgow told Independent Radio News. "There were no bodies about. I don't think there would be any chance of anyone getting out of it."
A BBC reporter who reached the crash site early on before police blocked access, said he saw a crater 20 feet deep and 100 feet long, with few pieces of visible wreckage larger than three feet long.
A spokesman for the Dumfires Royal Infirmary said local casualties included five persons hospitalized, two of them in serious condition and one listed as stable. Others were treated and released.
Pan Am's Kriendler said the 747 had been in service since February 1970, but had been disassembled and rebuilt last year under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet Program, a U.S. government program under which airlines receive aircraft overhauls in exchange for making the planes available to the government in an emergency. "Although it was an early-model 747, it was practically a brand new plane" because of the overhaul, Kriendler said.
Kriendler added that the plane had received a base check in San Francisco last week.
The Associated Press reported the following:
The last major crash of a Boeing 747 occurred Aug. 12, 1985, when a Japan Airlines flight crashed into a mountain on a domestic flight, killing 520 people. The last fatal Pan Am accident occurred July 9, 1982, in New Orleans, when a Boeing 727 crashed on takeoff, killing 153.
The Japan Airlines crash was the largest single-plane aircraft toll in history. Boeing later admitted its faulty repairs were one of the causes of the crash, which was attributed to a crack in the rear cabin wall that caused a sudden loss of pressure. The force of the air tore the plane's tail apart.
The Federal Aviation Administration in 1986 ordered a modification of all Boeing 747s as a result of that crash.
David Jimenez of Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle said the jet that crashed today was a 747-100. He said it was the 15th 747 ever built and that it was delivered to Pan Am in February 1970.
The 747 had approximately 33,000 cycles (one cycle is a takeoff and landing). Even though the jet was relatively old in terms of 747s, that is not considered a high number of cycles, he said. A high number is 50,000-plus.
Staff writer A.D. Horne, Warren Getler of the International Herald Tribune in London, special correspondent Marianne Yen and staff writer Howard Kurtz in New York contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company