Pan Am Bombing : Unraveling the Mystery of Flight 103

To the ordinary eye, the tiny scrap of material recovered from the rolling green hills near here looked like any other piece of charred metal.

But to bomb experts searching for clues in the downing of Pan American Flight 103 as it flew over Scotland from London to New York last Dec. 21, the pattern of pitting and cratering on the metal suggested that it had been directly exposed to a high-intensity explosion.

Investigators then pinned down--they won’t say exactly how, but their work relies heavily on computers--that the metal came from a radio-cassette player that housed plastic explosives. Having determined that the cassette player had been carried inside a piece of luggage, they are now trying to identify the luggage and figure out who checked it onto Flight 103.

If they can, they will have completed an important step in fixing responsibility for the deaths of the 259 people aboard the flight and 11 citizens of this peaceful Scottish market town, whose name comes from the Celtic words for “a place of strength.”


It is one of the great detective operations of the decade: the inch-by-inch scouring of 845 square miles of the Scottish countryside by 11,000 police and others for more than 10,000 fragments from the doomed aircraft; then the sorting of the wreckage in “Shed No. 3,” part of a British army ammunition depot 18 miles southeast of here.

Like Skeleton Dinosaur

Inside the shed, like paleontologists putting together the skeleton of a dinosaur, workers wearing plastic gloves have inspected and catalogued 80% of the plane.

In particular, by putting together shreds of twisted aluminum as small as 2 inches long, they have reconstructed much of the “igloo,” or portable baggage container, that they believe had been loaded into the forward cargo hold and contained the piece of luggage that carried the explosives-laden cassette player.


Intelligence agencies are conducting a parallel inquiry. The prime suspects are no longer radical Palestinians seeking to abort the U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization, but instead pro-Iranian groups with a variety of possible motives, including retribution for the downing of an Iranian Airbus by a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf last July.

But the fact-gathering detectives in Scotland, fearful that preconceptions will color their inquiry, have not even satisfied themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the crime was a terrorist act.

“Any investigator has his or her favorite suspect,” said Neil Gallagher, chief of the FBI’s counterterrorist unit. “It’s critical that they do not allow the investigation to be controlled by that.”

Gallagher acknowledges that the determination that the radio-cassette player carried the explosive heightens the likelihood that terrorists brought down Flight 103.

The bombing was apparently carried out by “motivated, highly trained” individuals and was not “a sporadic act,” he said. “But that doesn’t make it a terrorist act.”

Gallagher and others involved in the probe here and in Washington seem confident that those responsible for the act will be identified--eventually.

“Every day there’s a new twist, a new development,” Gallagher said, “which makes me confident a solution will be found. We’re in no sense of the word stymied. Whether we get to court remains to be seen.”

64 Airliner Cases


The record on solving such crimes, however, casts some doubt on Gallagher’s optimism. Since 1968, there have been 64 cases of sabotage, bombing or attempted bombing of aircraft worldwide, according to Karen Gardela, a RAND Corp. research assistant. The vast majority have gone unresolved, she said, particularly when the plane was destroyed.

Flight 103 seems a special case. More than two months after the plane was blown out of the sky, many roofs of Lockerbie houses remain covered by tarpaulins. Others show the telltale new tiles replacing those that had been damaged by the wreckage of the flight.

Sherwood Crescent, where the main part of the fuselage smashed to the earth in a ball of fire, is still barricaded. Workmen have filled in most of the 30-foot-deep gash in the ground. Somewhere underneath lies whatever remains of the missing bodies and four houses that were obliterated.

What will become of the crash site remains undetermined, although some residents oppose any memorial that will perpetuate the place as a ghoulish curiosity.

The scope of the investigation constitutes a kind of memorial to the tragedy. John Boyd, chief constable for the Dumfries and Galloway Region, where Lockerbie is located, described the probe as “an international murder inquiry on an unprecedented scale.”

Bodies on Golf Course

During what Boyd calls Phase 1 of the investigation--the search for bodies--victims were discovered over a 10-mile radius around Lockerbie. Scores of bodies fell on a golf course near Mount Tilla, a hill behind the town.

Mountain rescue teams used dogs to search for bodies in the areas of heaviest forestation and undergrowth. Police frogmen combed a huge reservoir a few miles from the town, as well as smaller streams.


Despite the intense hunt, no trace has been found of six Americans, three Hungarians and one Canadian from the plane and seven Lockerbie residents. Their bodies, it is assumed, were virtually “vaporized,” as one source close to the investigation put it.

As bodies were found, eight civilian and Royal Air Force pathologists worked to identify them, helped by orthodontists, dental records and FBI fingerprint cards. In the grisly cases of two victims, Karen Lee Hunt, 21, of Rochester, N.Y., and Mary L. Johnson, 25, of Wayland, Mass., their bodies were misidentified in Lockerbie and sent to each other’s family.

Their ages and general physical description were close, and their dental charts were virtually identical. “I’ve seen them, and they had the same fillings in the same teeth,” said one source. The mistake was discovered after the Hunt family became suspicious because the clothing from the body they received was not anything they knew to be in their daughter’s wardrobe.

Belongings X-Rayed

Examination of personal belongings began with X-rays “in case of there being a secondary explosive device,” Boyd said. After personal property is conclusively identified and determined to be unconnected with the bombing--jewelry found with the bodies of people not suspected of any connection with the bombing, for instance--it is being returned to relatives.

Some property from the crash is considered a health risk. Police Supt. Douglas Roxburgh, who is in charge of the former chemical factory in Lockerbie where investigators are storing and examining personal effects, said the material has been exposed to a host of dangerous substances, including aviation fuel and human body fluids.

“Area contaminated!” warn several signs at the former factory site. Inside, two men, wearing white gowns and caps, surgical masks over their faces and rubber gloves on their hands, sort through pieces of clothing.

Next came Phase 2: examination of the wreckage. Investigators faced the massive task of finding and identifying fragments not only from the wide-bodied Boeing 747 itself but also from the 21 tons of cargo--luggage and mail--that took off with the plane from London.

At Shed No. 3, a three-acre warehouse more than 200 yards long, each piece of wreckage is carefully logged on a computer. Then the pieces are grouped--wreckage from the cockpit goes to one corner of the shed, fragments from the tail section go to another, and so forth.

From the physical evidence on the ground--perhaps powder burns on luggage or luggage compartments--investigators determined that the bomb had been carried in the forward baggage compartment.

For each piece of luggage, Gallagher said, investigators sought to determine whether it had been on the first leg of Flight 103, a Boeing 727 from Frankfurt to London, and then been transferred onto the 747 in London. Or had it joined up with Flight 103 in London?

Next of kin were interviewed both to draw passenger profiles and to describe what they knew about the luggage on Flight 103. Gallagher said agents asked for such details as where passengers had been before boarding the plane, why they were traveling, with whom they were traveling and whether they could have carried the bomb onto the plane, wittingly or unwittingly.

“More than 20" of the 259 victims, mostly foreign men between the ages of 25 and 40, still have not been cleared of suspicion.

Pivotal Moment

Investigators are now focusing on matching the radio-cassette player with the luggage that contained it. “This is the most pivotal part of the investigation,” one official said.

A conclusive answer would eliminate the time-consuming task of reassembling each piece of luggage.

One source indicated Friday that investigators had narrowed the possibilities to a single piece of luggage. Others said only that several shreds of baggage that had been in direct contact with the bomb had been recovered and identified, but that the hunt for the specific bag was still under way.

Investigators have indicated that, from the remains they have recovered of the explosive device, it was detonated by a combination timer and altitude-sensitive trigger.

If the bomb was boarded onto Flight 103 in Frankfurt, then a strictly altitude-sensitive bomb might have been detonated in the pressure chamber that luggage passes through at the Frankfurt airport. And if the bomb had survived the pressure chamber, it might have gone off in the Boeing 727 during the flight to London.

Transfer Investigated

But an altitude-sensitive bomb with a timer--a bomb set to explode, for example, after two hours above 10,000 feet--could have been loaded onto the 727 in Frankfurt but lain dormant until Flight 103 was 31,000 feet over the Scottish countryside.

Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the bomb was transferred to Flight 103 in Frankfurt or London from another carrier, possibly a Middle East airline, that subjected its baggage to less stringent security than Pan Am.

For all the meticulous legwork, investigators acknowledge that they still have a long way to go to answer the ultimate question. Said one: “There is still not a single piece of paper or evidence that says whodunnit.”

The radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a group with close ties to Syria, has been mentioned repeatedly in speculation in the press over suspects. Thirteen of its members were arrested in West Germany in October with a Toshiba cassette player equipped with a plastic explosive bomb and a detonator that would go off after a period of time at high altitude.

However, U.S. intelligence agencies have swung from early suspicion of radical Palestinians to Iranian factions or pro-Iranian Lebanese as the main operatives behind the bombing of Flight 103. Like a growing number of terrorist incidents in the 1980s, Bush Administration officials say, the Pan Am bombing may have involved operatives from multiple organizations.

Most of the analysis so far has been deductive rather than based on the evidence. The focus on radical Palestinians, such as the PFLP-General Command, has diminished simply because of timing.

The PFLP was originally suspected because of an obvious motive: to sabotage the new U.S. dialogue with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. But Flight 103 was downed less than two weeks after Arafat’s dramatic announcement that he had accepted U.S. conditions for talks. “The bombing had to already have been in the planning stage then,” said a Bush Administration source who asked not to be named.

Iran and its allies are now considered to be among the prime suspects, counterterrorism sources say. Not only might they have sought revenge for the downing of an Iran Air jetliner by the U.S. Navy last July in which 290 people were killed, but they also might have been trying to sabotage the efforts by moderate Iranian factions to create an opening to the West.

And the mass suicide bomb has been a terrorist technique popularized by Iran over the last six years.

Bush Administration sources are increasingly talking of “state sponsorship.” But while investigators express confidence that they will uncover the identity of the bombers, several concede that they may not find sufficient proof to seek a criminal indictment.

Sgt. David Audley of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, a past director of the International Assn. of Bomb Technicians and Investigators, speaks for experts who believe those responsible will eventually be identified.

“A lot of people think that when a bomb goes off and detonates, the evidence is vaporized and no one will ever find the pieces,” he said. “That’s not true. It’s just like someone standing on a city street and firing a gun in the air. Somewhere, someplace, the bullet is going down.”

This story was reported by Times staff writers Dan Fisher in Lockerbie, Scotland, and Ronald J. Ostrow and Robin Wright in Washington.