Surgeon Jim Swire hardly looked like a man with a bomb as he opened his suitcase for a security check at Heathrow Airport before boarding a flight to New York.
Swire was dressed in a conservative gray suit and, as he has every day for the past 18 months, he wore a blue lapel button bearing the words: “Pan Am 103. The Truth Must Be Known.”
His 23-year-old daughter, Flora, and 269 other people were killed when Pan American Flight 103 was blown up by a terrorist bomb over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on Dec. 21, 1988.
Unlikely as it might seem, Swire was carrying a device almost identical to the terrorist bomb as he arrived at Heathrow on May 18 to board British Airways Flight 177 for New York, where he planned to meet relatives of American victims of the disaster. The security check at Heathrow failed to turn it up.
“You simply cannot imagine how depressing it was flying over the Atlantic knowing that there could easily be a bomb in the cargo hold below,” Swire said in an interview this week. He knew, of course, that his hidden device was not real. Like the terrorists’, his was in a cassette-recorder. The only difference was that theirs was packed with Semtex, a plastic explosive that smells like the almond confection marzipan, and his contained real marzipan.
Swire made public the success of his dramatic demonstration this week when he held a press conference and a series of meetings with officials in London.
His experiment has refocused public attention on the Lockerbie incident. It has touched off new controversy, reawakened the emotions of the victims’ relatives and added to the fears of the flying public that international airport safety has not improved significantly since the Lockerbie disaster.
“This was not a prank,” Swire said. “It was a serious experiment, and unfortunately it succeeded. Here, 18 months after Lockerbie, one can take an identical device through security. I find that very depressing.”
Swire’s suitcase was, in fact, examined before he was permitted to board his flight. A security guard looked carefully at the cassette-recorder, which was just like the one described in a warning by West German intelligence several weeks before the Lockerbie disaster, complete with pressure-gauge timer, extra batteries and a dummy detonator.
The doctor had deliberately exposed part of the marzipan, which resembles Semtex, but the guard asked only if the batteries had been removed. When Swire assured him that they had, he was waved through. After disclosing his airport trickery, Swire met with Cecil Parkinson, the secretary of state for transport, and Parkinson announced that a new investigation into airport security lapses will be undertaken.
Swire, who heads a group of victims’ relatives called the U.K. Families Group, said he is still skeptical that the group will realize its goal of getting at the truth behind the bombing.
In their exhaustive search for clues that could lead them to the Lockerbie terrorists, investigators have uncovered a wealth of detail. They have traced clothing in the suitcase that contained the bomb to a manufacturer in Malta, who sold it a month before the bombing to a suspect now in custody in Sweden on other bombing charges.
Scottish investigators say that other evidence has significantly narrowed the list of suspects, among them members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But they say there is not enough evidence to make arrests.
Last week, Scottish authorities announced that a public hearing into the Lockerbie case will begin Oct. 1 in the town of Dumfries. Swire said that he and the other relatives of victims are impressed with the thoroughness of the investigation so far, but he criticized the authorities for delaying the public hearing for almost two years.
“I’ll be a lot more impressed,” he said, “when the criminals who did this are brought to justice.”
This week, Swire had to face an inquiry of his own. He was called before investigators at Heathrow Airport who are considering filing criminal charges against him for the marzipan incident.
Swire said he had considered his plan “very, very carefully” and took pains not to alert any passengers and not to put the cassette-recorder in his carry-on luggage, where it might have led to a midair recall of the flight.
“Everybody is different in how they cope with their grief,” he said. “Keeping a high profile, as I have, is my way of coping with my grief. And that will not go away.”