Lockerbie 25 years on... priest tells of his memories

25 years ago the world was appalled when an aeroplane exploded over the skies of Scotland.

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  • Father Keegans found himself at the centre of the tragedy
    Father Keegans found himself at the centre of the tragedy
  • Father Keegans found himself at the centre of the tragedy

The craft smashed into the small town of Lockerbie, leaving a terrible memory for everyone involved.

ANGELA McMANUS met Canon Patrick Keegans who, as the local parish priest, found himself at the centre of the tragedy.

BODIES fall from the sky in slow motion and as each one hits the ground very softly it turns into dust and powder.

It could be a slow motion sequence from a film, but this was the image that haunted the dreams of Cannon Patrick Keegans after he found himself at the very centre of the Lockerbie disaster.

The then parish priest lived at 1 Sherwood Crescent, a house left unimaginably almost unscathed after Pan Am flight 103 exploded in the skies above the Borders town and obliterated every other home in the street.

"I remember everything about the night," he says. "It feels a bit disturbing looking back after 25 years. I think there's an intensity at the moment, the emotions come back up very strongly and people are sensitive and a bit fragile."

Now the administrator of St Margaret's cathedral in Ayr, he knew the 11 people killed in his street when the Boeing 747's wings and fuel tanks plummeted to the ground.

The explosion created a fireball that destroyed houses and left behind a vast crater. Now there is a memorial garden where the houses once stood.

In the weeks after the tragedy, he helped the town come to terms with what had happened, and later campaigned against the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi.

Remembering the events of December 21, 1988, he says: "I'd invited my mother to Lockerbie for Christmas, she lived in Saltcoats and I thought it would be nice for her as it was my first Christmas there.

"Friends in the Crescent, Maurice and Dora Henry, said, remember to bring your mother over this evening. We watched the 6pm news and I was about to phone them but my mum said, I'd like to watch the Border news.

"At 7pm it dawned on me that I'd left her Christmas present in the cupboard in her bedroom. So I thought, I've got to go upstairs and hide that - it was a fireside rug. When I went upstairs it sounded like a jet hitting the top of the roof.

"We were in a low-flying training area for fighter jets and I thought it was one of them.

"Then there was an almighty explosion, the whole house went into darkness and shook and I couldn't do anything but put my hand over my head and look at the ceiling and think, this is where we die."

When the house stopped shaking, he went downstairs to find his mother, who had been crossing from the kitchen to the dining room and the fridge-freezer saved her from the blast of the windows being blown in.

"When I looked out the front door the whole street was gone and everything round about it," he said.

"The smoke was horrendous. I said to my mother, I'm taking you out here now but I don't want you to look at anything, just keep your head down."

After getting his mother to safety, he spent the rest of the night walking around the smoke-filled streets with a local policeman trying to identify bodies. He still remembers the tremendous community ­effort of the people of Lockerbie.

"It was only in the next few days we began to realise the full horror of it. It took a while to sink in."

He made a decision to move back into his house early in the new year once it was wind and watertight.

"I did that deliberately because I wanted to make a statement that we could live with this disaster and live through it," he said.

"I was happy to move back into my house, though it was a strange feeling being the only one there."

Now, 25 years on, he says we must pay our respects to those who lost their lives and their families.

He will attend the memorial service on Saturday in Lockerbie. Pragmatically he says, if it reopens old wounds, this is something that has to be done.

"We still don't have any justice. I think this is the thing that is causing a lot of suffering, that the people in the plane and on the ground were cheated out of their lives and cheated out of justice," he said.

"I've always believed the Iran Air passenger flight that was blown out of the skies over the Persian Gulf in July 1988, when 290 people died coming back from a pilgrimage to Mecca, was the main cause of Lockerbie."

HE continued: "I've always believed Megrahi was innocent. I thought he was a scapegoat. The truth is there, it's just being covered up."

He talks about visiting Megrahi in prison and praying with him for all the families of the deceased.

And remembers a visit from representatives of some of the main Scottish police forces in the days before Megrahi's name was synonymous with the bombing.

"They came to my house in Sherwood Crescent," he said.

"I'd always been speaking about Syria and Iran and saying Libya doesn't really come into the picture.

"They talked about Libya this, Libya that and Libya the next thing. I asked, have you come here to shut me up?

"He said, no, but when you speak people listen, so I would appreciate it when you're speaking to people in the media if you would follow the same lines as us: Libya.

"I wrote to the Lord Advocate and after about a month I got this reply that said they'd only come to keep me informed.

"That visit convinced me that I was on the right tracks concerning Syria and Iran. Why should they ask me to keep quiet?"

UK and U.S. remember victims

Five memorial services are planned in the UK and the US on Saturday.

At Dryfesdale Cemetery in Lockerbie at 2pm and at Dryfesdale Church at 6.30pm. At Westminster Abbey at 6.45pm.

On the Syracuse University campus, a service of hope and remembrance will be followed by a procession to the Wall of Remembrance.

At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, there is a service at the Pan Am 103 Memorial Cairn, and at Syracuse University's Lubin House in New York City.

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