Pan Am 103 and “57 Gatwick”

On December 21, 1988, a commercial airliner exploded over Scotland, killing 259 people. Burning luggage, seats, and bodies rained down through the night onto the little town of Lockerbie. It wasn’t until the sun came up the following morning that the full scope of the horror became clear to those on the ground—as well as the world.

This was Pan Am 103, and it shocked everyone because, at the time, it was the worst act of aviation terrorism the world had ever seen. Nothing would surpass it until a fateful day in September 2001. Even now, whenever I’m on a 747, I sometimes imagine my long fall to the ground. Maybe everyone secretly thinks about this as we buckle ourselves into a plane. Maybe you do this? I suspect this is a common fear that crawls around inside our skulls, and although the name “Pan Am 103” might not mean anything to someone under the age of twenty-five, it really should mean something. I worry that this moment in history is being forgotten about. I worry that those 259 lives—and the families who continue to love them—are slipping from our collective memory.

I guess that’s one reason I wrote “57 Gatwick.” It’s the first story in my latest book, The Collector of Names but, of that, more in a minute. Let’s get back to Pan Am 103, which is far more important.

120522083234-pan-am-103-horizontal-galleryOn the night of the bombing, Colin Patterson was a member of the Dumfries/Galloway District Council for Mapping and Zoning. It was his job to map where the bodies had fallen as well as pinpoint the final resting place of the engines, the wheels, the nosecone, and anything else that might prove helpful to the investigation. Colin worked in the debris field and, by default, he became the liaison for the grieving families. He got to know them all by name, especially when they wanted to know where their loved ones had landed after their long fall through the night. He even helped design the memorial, which stands in Lockerbie today.

Colin is a member of my family and it’s for this reason that I’m not using his real name—I want to protect his privacy. He’s talked to my parents and sisters about what he saw that night and, years after the wreckage was cleaned up, he continued to usher families around Lockerbie with gentle reverence. So it seemed natural on the 20th anniversary of Pan Am 103 to write an essay about his experiences. Back in 2008, I wanted to fly over to Scotland and spend a few days with him to get the story right. I wanted to pay homage to these lost souls.

Colin, however, found it all too painful and politely said no. He apologized, but he just didn’t want to revisit that time of his life. And who can blame him? It would be like asking a firefighter to walk around Ground Zero and talk about what he saw on September 11. Veterans are like this too. Many of them simply don’t want to talk about what they saw in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I respected his decision but, as the weeks went by, the story of Pan Am 103 kept gnawing at me.

Rather than shelve the idea, I decided to transform this real life story into a work of fiction that eventually became “57 Gatwick.” My main character is loosely based upon Colin, but I knew he had to become his own person. I didn’t want “57 Gatwick” to be just a fictionalized retelling of Pan Am 103. I wanted the reader to relate to the protagonist, to feel the fear that filled up his whole body, and more than anything, I wanted to honor the dead that inspired the story.

My short fiction is usually rooted in my native Minnesota, so when I decided to move ahead with the project I began to consider flight paths out of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. I began to see a Boeing 747 exploding at 30,000 feet and, if I closed my eyes, I could almost see it. I imagined it falling to earth and I saw the lights of Duluth far down below. At such a great height, how long would it take for a person to hit the ground? (Answer: about seven minutes).

The explosion would have blown people a part, and passengers who survived the initial blast would be strapped into their seats when they hit the ground at 120 miles per hour. All of this made “57 Gatwick” very difficult to write because the people on that plane, they felt—there’s no other way to describe this—they felt real to me. Mothers and husbands and sisters and friends and grandsons, they all disappeared and I felt a strong sense of responsibility to get their stories right.

The issue of what historical details to use and which to shelve was also crucial. I talked to my family about things they remembered Colin saying when he showed them around. They squinted into the distance and told me things that I’d never come up with on my own. The stink of jet fuel was everywhere in Lockerbie. Cadaver dogs were used to locate bodies and, one after another, these animals died of cancer due to the petrochemicals that soaked the ground. These details make “57 Gatwick” feel authentic. Maybe it’s a good example of how nonfiction can make fiction feel more real.

My family also helped me to understand how seriously Colin took his job. The respect he had for the dead, how he never forgot that families were grieving, and how he conducted his job as though it were an act of love—that, that, was important for me to write about. And it’s true. My protagonist in “57 Gatwick” cares deeply about the grieving families and he acts this way because that’s exactly what happened in Lockerbie. “57 Gatwick” was a powerful experience for me, and in many ways it helped to shape the writer that I’ve become. I’m so pleased it’s the lead story in The Collector of Names, and if Colin Patterson or anyone else who is intimately tied to Pan Am 103 ever reads it, I hope I got the story right. I hope that “57 Gatwick” feels correct, and whole, and respectful. More than anything, I hope I’ve written something beautiful that might rise out of the wreckage of that plane.

Note: Some of this blog post was published, in a different form, in The Writer magazine.