Lockerbie’s heartrending epitaph: DR JIM SWIRE’s tale of grief and love

The passenger list of Flight 103 had been checked. Flora MacDonald Margaret Swire was on the plane

After a long day in the surgery seeing an avalanche of anxious pre-Christmas patients, I settled wearily into my study chair at home in Worcestershire. 

Along the passageway, our kitchen echoed with the rattle of cooking as my wife Jane prepared supper.

The following day, December 22, was the 24th birthday of our first-born daughter, Flora, who was by now on her way to America to visit her doctor boyfriend for Christmas, courtesy of Pan Am Airways. 

Our second daughter, Cathy, had waved her goodbye at Heathrow and was now homeward-bound somewhere on the M40.

Suddenly, Jane shouted something I couldn’t make out. She choked and struggled with more words. Slowly, I understood: ‘There’s a plane down, an airliner.’

The world rocked on its axis. I blundered into the sitting room and stood transfixed before the TV. 

‘A Pan American jumbo jet with more than 250 people on board has crashed tonight in the Scottish Borders. It hit a petrol station in the centre of the town of Lockerbie. Police say there are many casualties.’

Paralysed with dread, we watched the little town of Lockerbie burn. Cameras panned across destroyed streets then cut to the glowing gable ends of a bungalow, a chimney standing above a crushed wall, the roof gone, flames and sparks showering heavenward, images that will return to me until I die.

I wrapped my arms around Jane. Her arms hung by her side as if dislocated. Against me her heart thudded with a quick, regular beat, registering the icy fear of a mother whose child is in danger.

Flora’s face filled my brain. The room grew cold around us. Suddenly, Cathy’s car crunched along the drive and she stumbled in. She’d heard the news on her car radio. We embraced in silence.

Again and again, I dialled the emergency contact numbers on the TV, the skin on my fingers growing sore, but they were always engaged.

At midnight, five hours later, I got through to the Pan Am desk and asked if Flora had been on the flight.

‘Why can’t you tell me?’ I pleaded. ‘Why, with all your damn computers, can’t you say whether my child is on the plane?’

Two hundred and seventy murders in a second — parents, sons, daughters, children, babes, entire families on the plane and in the town itself. Death on such a scale terrifies; people cannot comprehend it

Two hundred and seventy murders in a second — parents, sons, daughters, children, babes, entire families on the plane and in the town itself. Death on such a scale terrifies; people cannot comprehend it

‘Sir, I can’t,’ said the Pan Am lady, fighting for self-control, her desk besieged by panicking relatives.

Jane and I sat, holding hands, constantly switching TV channels until all closed down for the night. Then we listened to the BBC World Service as each bulletin added more deaths.

Suddenly the phone rang. Pan Am New York was calling. The passenger list of Flight 103 had been checked. Flora MacDonald Margaret Swire was on the plane. 

There were no survivors, they said; there was no point in going to Heathrow, no point in doing anything.

Into my mind came images of Flora’s walk, her hair, her face, her laughter. As the plane cracked open and a 500 mph wind impacted, what did she see and hear and feel? How long was she conscious?

Was there time for a single thought before death came? Had she been disfigured, dismembered? My body shuddered as the questions encircled us like hungry demons.

A grey dawn arrived. The first day of a new existence passed. Friends phoned, then visited. What could they say? 

Two hundred and seventy murders in a second — parents, sons, daughters, children, babes, entire families on the plane and in the town itself. Death on such a scale terrifies; people cannot comprehend it.

Meanwhile, in Lockerbie, the townspeople watched as vans passed in procession towards the municipal ice rink. In time we learnt the collected bodies and body parts would not fit into Lockerbie hospital’s mortuary, so the ice rink was now filled with simple wooden pallets, each covered by a white sheet.

TV crews swarmed across the tiny Scottish town. On news reports, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher walked amid the bodies and debris, with the U.S. ambassador at her side, while American search teams located and removed ‘sensitive’ material.

For all present it was a devastating experience, a memory that would surely stay with them throughout their lives. And yet, in Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs, published six years later, she would not even mention the word Lockerbie.

Our Flora was a rare spirit, a young woman with that special vibrant energy that always characterises the truly great. And truly great we think she would have become if only she had been allowed to live.

She had all the right ingredients: a good intelligence, boundless energy, and most of all a warm and loving heart. In her late teens she decided to study medicine, and we never doubted that she’d leave a positive mark on the world.

Weeks later, when we drove to London to collect Flora’s belongings, we found on the desk in her tiny bedsit a letter from Cambridge University. It read: ‘We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted for a postgraduate course in medicine.’

We received a message that bereaved relatives were forbidden from seeing the bodies, on the strict advice of a senior psychiatrist. I knew from experience that relatives should never be told they ought to see a body — but it’s equally true we must never prevent it.

With the help of my authority as a practising doctor, I tracked down the consultant in charge of the Lockerbie post-mortems. He understood our anguish: ‘You may see Flora,’ he said. ‘But keep it to yourself.’

I drove to the ice rink, where a policeman stood by the doorway. The double glass doors slammed behind me, the crash echoing across a silent ice rink laden with humps of white linen on wooden pallets.

I did not know it yet, but the memory of this moment would be my prop, my staff, as I later faced prime ministers, ambassadors to the United Nations and the man accused of my daughter’s murder.

Our lovely Flora had been newly laid out away from the ice rink, away from the smell, in a tiny room with flowers all around. Beneath the white sheet, she seemed at peace.

My beloved daughter had received fatal injuries when the bomb exploded almost under her feet and the fuselage ripped apart at 31,000 ft, throwing her body into the screaming, freezing dark. She’d landed on a green Scottish hillside, and her face had been distorted by the impact.

The pathologist quietly asked: ‘Can you tell me any distinguish- ing marks?’

I said: ‘She has a mole on her right big toe.’

The sheet was rolled back. Toe undamaged, identity confirmed.

The pathologist offered to cut me a lock of her raven hair. I feared that if I spoke I’d choke in agony, so I nodded silently. Avoiding my eyes, he placed the lock on my palm. I curled the hair around my fingers and brushed it across my cheek. All I could smell was formalin.

I’d expected rage, but a wave of sadness, an endless sadness, flowed over me.

One hour later, at the memorial service in Lockerbie, crammed at the rear of the church among other relatives, what remained of our family peered over the shoulders of the crowd — and there at the front we saw Mrs Thatcher, the American ambassador and their entourage.

The ambassador read the story of the restoring to life of Lazarus, which felt inappropriate: the one thing none of us could be granted was the return of our loved ones. Jane clung to my arm as inside me, around my heart, washed great waves of anger.

After the service, we walked to the town hall for tea and biscuits. As we juggled our cups and saucers, an anonymous official steered us to shake hands with the prime minister. She seemed busy, impatient, while around her hovered a suited cohort.

Her husband, Denis, seemed warmer, more genuine. Afraid of what I might say, I backed away from the conversation. Surely Mrs Thatcher, a mother, had a mother’s feelings? Yet she seemed unmoved by our sadness.

As the months went by, we were imprisoned by anguish and grief. Our son William and daughter, Cathy, offered what comfort they could muster from their own deep sorrow, watching with Jane, powerless to help, as my numbness warmed to constant anger.

Then in August, the British and American relatives started a campaign for an inquiry into the bombing and I found myself appointed their British spokesman. I knew I couldn’t just sit and think about Flora; I’d go mad. So I began to channel all my emotional energy into a campaign to find the truth.

As my recipe for survival, I searched tirelessly and single-mindedly for details of the political events that had led to the outrage. This led to extensive travels — to Malta, Germany, France, Sweden, the U.S. and Libya — as the trail grew ever more murky.

I also campaigned to tighten up the lax airline security systems that had allowed the bombing to occur. At one point, I even flew to America with a fake bomb in my luggage — with a slab of marzipan doubling for the Semtex. No one challenged me, even when I took an internal flight in the U.S.

Eventually, in 2001, the former Libyan secret agent Abdelbaset al-Megrahi — a man I passionately believed to be innocent — was convicted of the bombing. The verdict left me in such despair that I fainted in the courtroom.

I’d watched every moment of the year-long trial, yet to me the evidence was weak, and the key witnesses had seemed highly suspicious.

It was clear by then that the intelligence services were concealing important evidence. Would I go to my grave, I asked myself, without ever knowing who murdered my daughter?

On August 20, 2009, al-Megrahi, who was suffering from prostate cancer, was released from his Scottish jail on compassionate grounds. Later I visited him in Libya as he lay dying.

He clasped my hands. ‘I am going to a place where I hope soon to see Flora,’ he said. ‘I will tell her that her father is my friend.’ He died barely six months later.

On August 20, 2009, al-Megrahi, who was suffering from prostate cancer, was released from his Scottish jail on compassionate grounds. Later I visited him in Libya as he lay dying

On August 20, 2009, al-Megrahi, who was suffering from prostate cancer, was released from his Scottish jail on compassionate grounds. Later I visited him in Libya as he lay dying

Even now, in spite of deeply compromised witnesses — two of whom were paid millions of dollars for their testimony — and disproven evidence, our repeated calls for an inquiry into our greatest terrorist atrocity in modern times have been rejected by multiple prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron.

So much evidence points to the bomber being a Jordanian terrorist, but that man was also a valuable CIA asset.

It’s my belief that the U.S. and British governments collaborated to pin the blame for Lockerbie on Libya, and that the two countries worked together to ensure any evidence undermining the case against al-Megrahi would never see the light of day.

Has there ever been a greater outrage with less action taken? Do transatlantic national interests trump all other values? Are the dead of Lockerbie not to be weighed in the balance?

Jane and I are now in our 80s — but we will not cease campaigning for the truth about the Lockerbie disaster to be revealed.

Three weeks after the crash, the authorities had released Flora’s body. We took her ashes home and Jane placed them in our bedroom, clinging to what remained of our daughter through the spring and summer.

Her guilt at not being there to hold Flora’s hand in those final moments was like the pain of being burned alive. She would picture over and over in her imagination what Flora saw and heard and felt as the silver plane split wide apart.

Day after day, Jane’s eyes would focus on the kitchen clock as a thin black second-hand ticked away the 15 seconds that Flora would have endured before death claimed her.

That autumn, we travelled to the Isle of Skye, to the graveyard of the ruined chapel where my parents are buried. There we lay Flora’s ashes in the ground.

Later that same year, I remembered I had 1,500 trees ready for planting: ash, beech and wild cherry. They stood neglected, wrapped in sackcloth, their roots freezing by night, drying in winter sun by day. Caring friends came to help, digging the bundles into the ground — just enough to keep them alive until I could plant them.

In the winter of 1989, summoning what remained of my strength, I dragged the bundles to a tiny valley near our home. I disentangled the first sapling, hammered downward with the spade, eased wide the wound, dropped in the root, squeezed down the soil with my heel, then onward to the next, my mind still flowing with an ocean of rage.

As I dug, I formulated a planting plan in Flora’s memory. I ordered 3,000 more ash and wild cherry, and 250 oak, and set aside two weeks for careful measuring and marking out.

It would take many months to complete, a mighty task born from despair. But my statement to the world would be special: I desperately wanted the Americans to see it with their satellites, the width of my linear oak wood exactly matching the wingspan of that fallen Boeing 747.

A few years on, a kindly forestry expert would offer his own contribution, by persuading the Ordnance Survey people to name my labour of love.

Amid the surrounding ash, beech and cherry stands proud an oak wood in the shape of a great capital ‘F’, to be known — as long as there are maps — as ‘Flora’s Wood’.

Adapted from THE LOCKERBIE BOMBING: A FATHER’S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE by Dr Jim Swire, published by Birlinn at £14.99. © Jim Swire 2021. 

To order a copy for £13.34 (offer valid until June 30; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit or call 020 3308 9193.

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