Many people do not realise that the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team was heavily involved in the Lockerbie Disaster. Very little has been written or spoken of what happened. This is our story.
I had been the team leader at RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team for over a year, the pinnacle of my career in mountain rescue. Our primary task was recovery of RAF and civilian aircrew. In my 18 years with Mountain Rescue I had been to several aircraft crashes, often in the mountains, but Lockerbie was different, very different. It is very difficult to write about this period and how it affected me personally and several of my team.
I was trying to get a few days leave before Christmas. In those days there was an old saying - "do not give me a call unless a Jumbo jet crashes in the mountains". I was at home with my girlfriend when my deputy called saying Pan Am Flight 103, a Jumbo jet, had crashed.
How do you brief a team at a time like that? How do you cope with over 270 casualties? RAF Leeming MR was airborne for Lockerbie, with RAF Stafford following by road. The M74, with no cars was a weird experience. Wreckage was all over the road and the sky was like daylight with fires burning everywhere. The smell of fuel and the heat and smoke were overpowering - a smell that will remain with me for the rest of my life. The sky was full of helicopters, and it was like a scene from Vietnam or Hades - a nightmare. Wreckage was everywhere. A huge engine the size of a car stuck into the road. Aircraft panels on roofs. Open suitcases, with Christmas presents spread about. Surreal scenes. Bodies everywhere.
We had been so hopeful that we could save lives but it was just like a scene from "Apocalypse Now." It was awful carnage, indescribable, never to be forgotten. The sheer scale of it was mind boggling. Nothing can prepare you for this, even after a lifetime of rescues. The brief to the troops was one of the most difficult ever. We made sure they worked in pairs with an old head along with the newer troops and told them what horrors to expect. Critically, we were looking for the aircraft's "black box." This is where our experience of aircraft crashes came into its own. At first light Stafford found the black box in the first hour. This impressed the police and even more the "men in suits" who had arrived in the middle of the night.
The casualties were left where they fell and troops were covering the kids with fleeces and clothing to give the bodies some dignity. Everything was by now a scene of crime and a Police Officer guarded each casualty. Some criminals had come into the area robbing the casualties. Man's inhumanity to man was all around. How could people do this? During times like these the basic things in life matter, and heroes emerge. The WRVS set up in the school kitchen and produced meals around the clock 24 hours a day for weeks. These ladies gave us a bit of sanity during this disaster. Very few of us slept that night. Many had nightmares. And we were all aware that it was going to be the same again the next day – and the next...
By the end of the third day, we had accounted for all the casualties, so there was little left for us to do, so we pulled out. Casualties were still being brought in to the makeshift morgue as we left. Each life a tragedy to their families and friends, a life lost to evil.
On our return to Leuchars, the Station Commander met us with beer and a few words; we were heroes for the day. In those days, there was no training in post – traumatic stress disorder: (PTSD). Little did I know how this would affect me later on in a fairly serious way. I asked for counselling for the team and eventually we did receive it. Many of the troops thought this was a daft idea but in my mind it was definitely necessary.
In between Christmas and New Year I drove down South to pick up my lass. I was exhausted. Everything had caught up with me. I had not been sleeping, having flashbacks and nightmares, and the stress was starting to affect my new relationship. I was worn out physically and physiologically. I was a different person. I had changed in many ways.
Callouts that winter came thick and fast, the team rising to every challenge. A few months later I awoke to find I could not move. I fell out of bed, crawled downstairs and got my lass to take me to the doctor. I was tested for everything, had blood taken, but they could find nothing wrong. This was a worrying time and I was off work for over 3 months. In the end I was told it was the effects of stress after Lockerbie and my body's way of telling me to slow down. It took over 6 months to get myself sorted out.
It took a long time to go back to Lockerbie as I did last year. The Garden of Remembrance and Memorial are impressive. The village is back to normal and life goes on. I still could visualise what had happened on that dark night and will never forget it. I thought I would never see such as scene again. A few years later after Lockerbie I was one of the first on scene at the Shackelton crash on Harris and the Chinook on the Mull of Kintyre. Though not on the same scale of Lockerbie when I flew into the crash sites and saw the fires, the smell of fuel and wreckage, I had flashbacks. I was back in hell again. I asked the troops to look after me and they did. I was awarded a BEM after the disaster as this is the way we do things in Britain. The whole team deserved recognition.
Mountain Rescue has been built from years of experience, dedication and service. God willing nothing like this will happen again, but in this mad world we live in you never know. Teams are all now part of Disaster Planning. The Mountain Rescue Teams and The Search and Rescue Dog Association did an exceptional job during Lockerbie. We should all be proud of the part they played. I was extremely proud to work with such incredible people.
This article was published in the RAF Leuchars Air show Souvenir Programme on Saturday 10 September 2011