The Lockerbie Bombing Took Place 32 Years Ago Today: Here is One Pan Am Employee’s Story

Pan Am Museum chair Linda Freire at an exhibit of a Grumman G-21 Goose in Pan Am livery, ca. 1939.

By Kurt Stolz on 21 December 2020
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A Pan Am Boeing 747 en route from London to New York broke up in flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, some 32 years ago today as the result of a terrorist bombing.

Here is what happened and what a Pan Am flight servicesupervisor remembers of that fateful day.

Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled transatlantic flight that operated from Frankfurt to Detroit via London and New York.  On December 21, 1988, the aircraft on the transatlantic leg of the trip, a Boeing 747-121 with tail number N739PA, was destroyed by a bomb that had been placed into a brown Samsonite suitcase that was later traced to the Libyan government and then dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.  The explosion killed all 243 passengers and 16 crew members aboard, as well as 11 people on the ground.

Pan Am, the unofficial flag carrier of the United States and the most glamorous way to fly for half a century, didn’t only carry those who made history, such as the Beatles in 1964 or the families rescued during the fall of Saigon in 1975, but made history itself, many times over, starting in 1927 when it became the first U.S. airline to operate permanent international air service, launching a route linking Key West, Florida, with Havana, Cuba.  Indeed, Pan Am was so closely identified with the United States that, in December 1988, it was targeted by Libya.

The bombing not only took down the Boeing 747, known as Clipper Maid of the Seas, but for all intents, the airline as well.  Within three years, Pan Am was no more.

Linda Freire, who currently serves as the chairman of the Pan Am Museum in Garden City, New York, was a flight service supervisor at Pan Am at the time of the attack.  FBT Editorial Director Jonathan Spira sat down with Freire to learn more about that fateful day in Pan Am’s history.

Jonathan Spira: The bomb went off at 7:03 p.m. local time that day, i.e. 2:02 p.m. EST.  When did you first hear of the bombing?

Linda Freire: Shortly after it happened. I was working in the flight service office in at JFK, and we received a call from London operations around 2:30 p.m. Our manager, Diana Adams, got an emergency phone call and we both went into her office.  As soon as she took the call, I saw her face go white.  “The 103 is off radar,” she said quietly.

JS: What do you have to do then?

LF: I had to go over to the Worldport to departure controls for flight service and let the operational supervisors there know, as we knew it was going to hit the news.  There were televisions with news programs on in the gate areas.  In the terminal, passengers and employees who were coming in had already heard the news.

JS: Today companies send in trained grief counselors when such events occur.  Did anything like that take place then?

LF: There’s always an emergency response team, Myron Rosenstein, whom we called Rosie, coordinated the team and was locating friends and family members who were meeting an arriving passenger on 103, escorting them to the Clipper Club lounge on the 4th floor where they would have some privacy.  There was one woman, the mother of one of the Syracuse students, who made it to one of the gates and collapsed on the ground screaming after learning of the news. The sound of her screaming still lives with me today.

JS: What sticks out in your mind, 32 years later?

LF: From that day, the moments that stick out include going to departure control to tell them, briefing the flight attendants, the gasps, the horror of it all.  Pan Am continued to operate that day but removed newspapers from the aircraft.  People were a little fearful but I don’t believe anyone immediately suspected a bomb, although that later became clear.

JS: What happened then?

LF: Pan Am sent me to London the next day.  I was there for a month, overseeing base operations.  The London people were in shock.   I was also the liaison to the families of the two French flight attendants who were on 103 and I was on the phone with various members of the family for hours at a time as they needed someone to talk to.

JS: Thinking back, what are your thoughts today?

LF: The saddest thing was the loss of all of these people. I was recently on a Pan Am Museum conference call and one board member who had been close friends with one of the pilots on 103 said that “it could have been any of us.”  Looking back, it was the death knell for Pan Am, despite the fact that the airline had just started to turn the corner and return to profitability.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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