Pan Am Flight 103: The Lockerbie disaster killed my daughter

Jim next to a portrait of his daughter Flora, who lost her life in the Lockerbie disaster (Picture: Emily-Jayne Nolan/Sky UK Ltd)

On the wall of Dr Jim Swire and his wife’s bedroom hangs a painting of their daughter, Flora. She’s smiling, dressed in white and clutching a bunch of flowers in her right hand while poignantly holding out a forget-me-not in her left.

Of course, the couple could never forget Flora.

Ever since she was killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie in December 1988, Jim has fought relentlessly to ensure her plight, and that of 269 others, is remembered – and to reveal the truth about who killed them.

‘It’s a life sentence, to lose someone that you love so deeply,’ Jim, now 87, tells Metro.co.uk over Zoom from his Cotswolds home.

Crowding him are shelves packed with documents, folders, books and tapes amassed from nearly 35 years of research into exactly what happened that night just before Christmas.

‘She was my eldest daughter. And her integrity and intelligence was snuffed out in an avoidable disaster. And then the truth was concealed by those who should have been eager to reveal the truth,’ he says.

Jim had been writing Christmas cards when Jane told him a plane had come down over Scotland. He immediately called Pan Am and against the background sound of American relatives screaming in the offices as their worst fears were realised, he too received the dreadful news that Flora had been on that flight.

Jim, who shares his story in the new four-part Sky documentary Lockerbie produced by production company Mindhouse, says he went to the Scottish town to identify his daughter’s body. She was being held in an ice rink because it was the only place large enough for so many fatalities.

The mid-air bombing killed 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground (Picture: Reuters)

Jim asked to see an undamaged part of her body and identified her by a pigmented spot on a toe of her left foot.

Jane didn’t want to go along, because: ‘I didn’t want to see her when she had been killed. I wanted to remember her as I had last seen her; full of life. She was our first born. She was everything that a parent could wish for; beautiful and intelligent. We were very proud of her.’

Flora, a neurology student, was just about to turn 24 when she took the flight to New York to spend Christmas with her boyfriend. She was killed along with 258 other passengers and 11 locals – making it the deadliest terrorist incident to have taken place on British soil.

The wind that night was such that debris was spread 18 miles across the border into England; at 845 square miles it was the biggest crime scene in history. The plane destroyed homes, victims’ bodies were vaporised and locals were left traumatised after finding corpses strewn across the fields – some still strapped to their seats – near the small Borders town. One couple sat with one man for nearly 24-hours where he fell in a field.

Rev John Mosey’s 19-year-old daughter was also on the flight.

Helga, ‘a bright, caring person’ who was a talented musician and singer and destined for great things had been working in New York and after a visit home, John drove her from Birmingham to Heathrow, checked her bags and kissed her goodbye. That evening he got a call from a concerned parishioner, reporting a plane crash.

Rev John Mosey was watching news coverage of the crash when they realised his daughter, Helga, was on the flight (Picture: Barnaby Fry/Sky UK)

Thinking ‘Scotland wasn’t on the way to America’, John thought nothing of it. But the television was turned on to reveal a newsflash and John, his wife Lisa and 15-year-old son Marcus watched the images of Lockerbie in flames.

John says: ‘It didn’t occur to me at all. What we were seeing on the television was another world; nothing to do with us. But my wife said: “That’s Helga’s plane.” And there was a stunned silence that seemed to go on forever. The silence was broken by Marcus shouting “No, no, no!” And then eventually, my wife – “Helga, Helga” – was hardly able to crawl out of her mouth. I couldn’t find any words at all.’

They turned off the set and stood in the sitting room asking for God to help them. Within minutes the phone started ringing – 40 or 50 times –  and around 20 people, friends and parishioners, visited the home. ‘We felt part of a lovely family. We were wrapped in support and love,’ he remembers. John initially felt numb. But he remembers thinking: ‘“747s don’t just fall out of the sky”. I said, within ten minutes: “A bomb. There’s dirty work afoot here.”’

It soon emerged that the victims’ families wouldn’t just have to live with the grief; but that they would have to learn to live with the agonising fact that opportunities to prevent the deaths had apparently been missed.

Jim was unwillingly catapulted from bereaved family member, to unofficial spokesman for the relatives, and when he met a specialist in aviation security at the Department of Transport in the weeks after the disaster his faith in the authorities was irrevocably shaken. The official told Jim that in October 1988, a warning had been issued that there was a credible threat that a bomb could be put on a flight. 

‘It made me so angry; the idea that beautiful Flora, who we loved so dearly, that her safety should have been in the hands of people so incompetent,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.

The remnants of seats found amid the wreckage from Pan Am flight 10(Picture: PA: 26/12/1988)

‘A prime function of any government is to protect its citizens against those who wish to kill them – and that had not been done.’

Later, Jim found that American agencies had also received warnings about the possible bombing of a Pan Am flight: ‘That was something that was key to my fury, discovering that the reason why Flora was able to buy a ticket just before she wanted to fly, was because American people around the world were warned off, while we were never told anything – and our government did nothing effective to prevent the disaster.’

An Iran-backed Palestinian terror cell was suspected of the attack, but two Libyan suspects fell into the FBI’s sights; Lamin Fhimah and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan Arab Airlines manager and a Libyan intelligence officer. The FBI believed they put a bomb on Pan Am 103 in retribution for an American bombing of Tripoli two years before. In 1991, the US and British investigators indicted the pair on 270 counts of murder, conspiracy to murder and violating Britain’s 1982 Aviation Security Act.

Shaken by the authorities’ failure over the warnings, Jim took it upon himself to investigate what had happened, meeting numerous experts and officials, and even undertaking independent reviews of the evidence.

‘Hate would have been counterproductive. All I was after was the truth. I felt I had a right to know how my daughter came to be killed and why she wasn’t protected against being killed,’ he says.

Inconsistencies started to emerge. Questions were raised about the reliability of physical evidence from the crash site, and about where the bomb had been put on the plane.

Jim Swire admits he became ‘obsessed’ with finding out the truth (Picture: Rory Toher/Sky UK Ltd)

The work became an ‘obsession’ and Jim lost his job as a GP.

‘My partners sacked me from the practice because they felt I wasn’t paying full attention to the administration of the practice, which I think was a fair criticism,’ he admits. ‘I wasn’t. I was trying to find out why my daughter’s life had not been protected by the elected government in this country.’

So obsessed with finding out the truth, Jim even made a fake bomb which he took on a flight to prove that security at Heathrow was insufficient and in 1991 he traveled to Libya to convince Colonel Gadaffi to extradite the suspects in person.

The families faced years of waiting, but when US sanctions started to take their toll on Libya, Gadaffi gave them up and the pair were brought to trial at Camp Zeist in Holland in May 2000.

Attending every session of the 84-day trial, Jim heard three million words of evidence and saw 200 witnesses. It was Britain’s biggest ever mass murder trial, and when he heard the word ‘guilty’, he passed out with shock.

He says: ‘I could not continue to believe that there was a cogent body of evidence that justified the finding of these two men guilty. When they said “guilty”, I simply couldn’t absorb that because I knew so much about it all; I knew that the evidence was not valid… I THINK WE NEED A LINE HERE TO SAY WHY HE FEELS THE EVIDENCE WASN’T VALID? ALSO WASN’T ONLY ONE FOUND GUILTY? Jim says the evidence heard was ‘weak and contradictory’ and his own investigations have raised questions around one particular element – a fragment of circuit board which he believes was made years after the bomb was detonated. *I mention that Fhima is found not guilty in the next para. Could move up?*

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John also suffered and eight years after Lockerbie, he had a nervous breakdown. 

‘To know that the political world was manipulating the law for its own ends, which is very clearly what has happened, has made me angry,’ he says That has moved me very much indeed and disturbed me more than even the death of our daughter.’

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001, given a life sentence, and died in 2012 after being granted compassionate release from prison following a cancer diagnosis. Lamin Fhimah was found not guilty. Iran has always denied any involvement.

In the years since the trial, Jim has continued his fight for justice. He believes that the perpetrators were Iran; who targeted the plane in retribution for Iran Air Flight 655; an airbus that was accidentally shot down in July 1988 by the US Navy, killing 290 people.

‘Flora would have expected justice to be done and should have expected to have been protected in the first place,’ he says. ‘I’m sure the truth will come out eventually – probably not in my time, but the truth always comes out.’

John also expects justice in some form or other. He has now grieved his daughter for nearly twice as long as he knew her. At 83, he says he is comforted by the fact that he will be reunited with his daughter when this life is over and by the fact that her own death has allowed many lives to be saved.

Floral tributes are laid by the memorial stones in a garden of remembrance(Picture: AP)

‘On the fifth morning after it all happened, I was in Helga’s bedroom at around half five,’ he recalls. ‘I hadn’t slept well that night and, looking back, I was looking for a way of coping. I opened my Bible at random and found my eyes dropped on a verse [that said] “Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by doing good.” And I thought: “Yes. That’s how we win.”

Money had been pouring through the Moseys’ letterbox; donations from friends, parishioners and local businesses. So they set up the Helga Mosey Memorial Trust, which supports projects in India, Afghanistan, the Philippines and elsewhere.

John adds: ‘It supported a home for abused and abandoned children in the Philippines which has helped over 200 people. If Helga was still alive more than half of them would be dead.

‘We overcome evil by doing good, and when I think of more than 100 children that would be dead who are now prospering, who have had a good education and been to university, I realise Helga didn’t die for nothing. She would have been delighted that so many people have been helped.’

Lockerbie is available to watch on Sky Documentaries and NOW.


MORE : Lorraine Kelly says witnessing horrific Lockerbie bombing was like being in a ‘warzone’


MORE : Lockerbie terror attack ‘bombmaker’ is now in US custody


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