Page last updated at 20:17 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

'Ribbons marked where bodies lay'

The fields around Tundergarth were strewn with debris after the crash

By Doug Archibald
Dumfries and Galloway Standard (retired)

I was heading along Newall Terrace in Dumfries, full of expectation and bound for a pre-Christmas drink with Gretna FC officials.

The wail of a fire engine had been getting closer and closer. Then it passed me, at full tilt, on Lovers Walk.

When I walked through the bar door Les Snowden, one of the Standard photographers at the time, was waiting. He told me two military aircraft had crashed over Lockerbie and we had to go.

Half an hour later I walked into our house at Auldgirth, just in time to catch a news flash on TV saying a jumbo jet had crashed over the town.

doug archibald
A wall of flames probably 30 feet high stretched from the edge of the M74 gradually getting smaller until it became the darkness of a luckier part of the town

I ignored police instructions not to travel through Lochmaben and had dumped my car about a mile away from Lockerbie town centre by a few minutes past eight.

My first encounter with the disaster was staggering. I stood on the bridge over the motorway just a few hundred yards from Sherwood Crescent, which was on fire.

A wall of flames probably 30ft high stretched from the edge of the M74, gradually getting smaller until it became the darkness of a luckier part of the town.

The centre was chaotic. Firefighters and policemen seemed to be running everywhere. I have a distinct memory of fire hoses snaking around the gutters.

Soon that distinctive thump of a helicopter rotor was cutting through the air and I began to notice the awful smell of aviation fuel. I thought I was in a Vietnam war movie.

Lockerbie wreckage
Police officers stand next to a piece of wreckage in Lockerbie

Talking to witnesses and people who had narrow escapes soon emphasised I was not.

About two in the morning the police called a press conference. Dozens of press and about 10 television crews were lined up in the town hall. All had been filing stories with details of the PanAm clipper "Maid of the Seas", numbers on board etc.

The sum and substance of the press conference was confirmation that a plane had crashed. The Americans went wild.

In subsequent days I was deeply affected by witnessing the crashed nose cone at Tundergarth, now the symbol of the disaster, and, despairingly, the Chinook helicopter ferrying bodies down from the crags behind the church.

Stakes in the ground with fluttering ribbons marked the spot where bodies had been found.

I saw a mile-long swathe of debris stretching from the road near Tundergarth way over the fields. Suitcases, papers, plane seats, they were all there. Poignantly a single trainer, lying on its side next to a gate in the field, brought tears welling to my eyes.

Glorious sunshine

That happened again when I looked at the impromptu shrine of flowers which just appeared outside the town hall. One message in particular, from man in London, will always remain with me.

It read something along the lines of: "To the little girl in the red dress who made my flight from Frankfurt such a delight. You did not deserve this."

I was there between 21 December and Christmas Day. I was only too aware of the terrible, terrible tragedy yet it didn't seem real. I was on the outside looking in.

That changed on Christmas Day morning. Walking my dogs on the hill behind Auldgirth in glorious sunshine, the enormity of it all suddenly came home with a vengeance. I sat down and cried.

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