Downing of Malaysian airliner reminiscent of Pan Am 103: Matt's Memo

December 1988, Tundergarth near Lockerbie, Scotland.

The grave images from the farm field in eastern Ukraine quickly revives recollections of the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland more than 25 years ago. Similar to the Pan Am attack the Malaysian explosion broke up the jumbo jet at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet, the airplane debris field stretched for miles and the remains of many of the victims were largely intact after plummeting to earth.

Remember 40 people with ties to Central New York, including a group of Syracuse University study abroad students, were flying home for the holidays when a terrorist bomb exploded in the cargo hold of Pan Am 103 on December 21, 1988. That flight had been delayed from take off from Heathrow in London. That led to the timer on the explosive in a Sony Walkman went off when the jet known as the Maid of the Seas was still over land instead of above the sea.

It took a lengthy investigation and a bit of luck to determine Pan Am 103 exploded in mid-air because someone intended to kill the people on board. The MH17 flight was attacked from a surface to air missile fired from somewhere near the eastern border of Ukraine and Russia. The pattern of destruction of both flights is similar.

The first videos and still images at twilight in Ukraine showed large recognizable pieces of fuselage and the jet engines among much of the charred and burned out wreckage. It reminded me of my visit to Tundergarth on the hills outside of Lockerbie upon the tenth anniversary of Pan Am 103. That's where the signature photo was taken of the nose cone of the Maid of the Seas.

I also recall talking with the Scottish people who gracefully cared for the bodies that fell from the sky that night. Much like the raw photos circulating from Ukraine, some of the victims oddly appeared to be resting on the ground. Other remains are unlikely to be found, especially if the passengers or crew members were in close proximity to the point of impact and the ensuing fire capture on amateur video.

It is also worth noting the downing of the Malaysian airliner now shares an anniversary date with the demise of TWA 800. It was July 17, 1996 when that jet exploded off the coast of Long Island. I flew down to Long Island in the wake of that disaster to cover the response and early investigation. To this day some people believe it was blown up by a shoulder mounted rocket launcher from the Long Island shore. The investigation showed it was a spark in a partially empty fuel tank that combusted and split the plane in two.

We will learn more in the days and weeks to come about MH17. Despite the global political tension, we can hope international pressure allows qualified investigators to inspect the scene and retrieve the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.


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