Lockerbie – 21 December 1988 – A nightmare never to forget.

The Memorial at Lockerbie.

The Memorial at Lockerbie.

Every year on this day no matter what I will always remember the night of Lockerbie, when my life changed forever. I have written about it on my blog in the past and have an article about what happened on the website. Please read it there is more detail there of what occurred.  There may be a bit on the news today hidden away even though it was a huge event 280 died on that awful night. I was the Team Leader of a superb group of people the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team based near St Andrews in Fife. We had a great team who were at the forefront of rescue in Scotland and had seen most things but this was completely different.   These were tough hardy people the best, yet many like me were effected for life.

Lockerbie night b;lown up

I had just taken a few days leave as my personal life was in turmoil as my ex girlfriend had left her husband and was coming to see me from down South on the 21 December. I was still in love with her and needed time to sort out my life. She arrived at 1600 at Leuchars railway station distraught and we only had 3 hours together when Lockerbie happened. At first I did not believe it when the call came as this was my first time off for a year, Jumbo jets do not crash. What a start to a night of hell.

Search area 1500 kilometres!

Search area 1500 kilometres!

I raced up to the Mountain Rescue Section briefed the troops and then had to go back home to sort out things.  I had great people with my Deputy Raz  Frew at the forefront he took the team down to Lockerbie whilst I sorted a few things out. I followed later with a Police escort all the way to the deserted M74 with the sky on fire and wreckage on the road. This was surreal, a fast party from RAF Leeming Mountain Rescue had arrived by helicopter from their Christmas party and were doing a Reece  it was utter confusion. The Police force was the smallest in the UK as was the Fire Service confusion rained. My boss Bill Gault was travelling home from London when it happened and was passing Lockerbie he was there with Bill Batson the RAF  Leeming Team Leader. They were the right men for the job, I arrived and briefed the troops and took over the Lockerbie High School which became our headquarters. The local MRT and Search Dogs arrived and we had so many helicopters it was like a scene from Vietnam . We had to sort it out and get some control over the helicopters from the ground the fires were raging it was too dangerous to do anything. I went and had a look and there was nothing we could do for anyone . Bodies were everywhere, Christmas presents, belongings and kids toys made this a horror scene never to forget. The smell of death, fuel,the heat and smoke along with the carnage make it so unreal to this day.  We had to keep the teams out of the way till it was safe to go out a hard job, we waited it was the longest night of my life.


No one slept – we waited for the fires to go out and by 0700 we were searching and had located over 150 casualties and the Black Box. Grown men and women cried put their clothing over the bodies to give them some respect as they searched. Each man, woman, child a tragedy that still haunts me to this day. The days that followed changed many of us, we had demons and nightmares. The local teams searched for weeks and the Search and Rescue Dogs did a hugely difficult job. Little is written of these heroes a word so badly used these days. This was a scene of crime and it took several days for the bodies to be removed. As we searched new areas we passed through bodies that were now familiar to us, each a life taken a family broken for what?  Many who worked in this tragedy are scarred for life, families suffered and Post Traumatic  Stress was unheard off then!

I try to tell the tale because few know of the efforts of this wonderful band of people who make up  Mountain Rescue. A lot is written on Lockerbie and Mountain Rescue gets little credit.  I have been to so many presentations by so called “experts” and the Teams are forgotten, this must never be allowed to happen. As with the local people who opened their homes to us and showed us such kindness in amongst a tragedy. The WRVS who were there from the beginning and at the end giving us meals and drinks and at times mothers love to us all when we were so upset. The days after report writing into the wee small hours on the tragedy in great detail for the goverment. The team members dropping in as I wrote to speak about what they had seen and how they felt and then it was Christmas. Twenty three team member’s went out for the holiday period, they unwound at Kingussie a wild night I looked after them. Next day I ran with my dog to Ben Mac Dui on a bitter winters day to clear my mind alone in a world of cold and snow.The troops all keeping an eye on me at various stages on the hill. I was dressed very lightly in my running shoes and a wee bag! After that it was my night in town when they looked after me!  Few understood until the nightmares and illness struck – the doctors said it was stress and an awful time.  I was in a new relationship  with someone you loved but I was not the same person.  I had changed and Lockerbie claimed another few casualties. My new family suffered for a long time and there was little help. In the end you get by as it was all new to the doctors and grown men especially in Scotland supposed hard ones like I was supposed to be do not speak about such things.  Life goes on and now I can cope and help a few who still suffer but I feel we must talk about Post Traumatic Stress and what occurs. It has been a hard journey but hopefully those who follow nowadays will get help from the lessons learned by us. A good friend who recently passed away Taff Tunnah contacted me last year and told me he had a really difficult time after Lockerbie. Taff was an RAF ex – mountain Rescue Team Leader, old school. He suffered after his work at Lockerbie where he was involved with the Mortuary side of the incident.  To hear from someone as experienced as him who suffered was an eye opener for me. It was very brave thing to do and helped me immensely

Trauma - a part played by RAF Rescue teams in the treatment of PTSD in the military.

Trauma  – a part played by RAF Rescue teams in the treatment of PTSD in the military.

It is a hard time for me on this day every year at the anniversary of Lockerbie and for others involved. I will speak too good friends who understand and can help. My family is  aware of what happened to me and those involved “on that night I will never forget”

The world at times makes you want to cry at times with the awful things that happen. I was down South and heard of the murder of the innocents in the USA last week I was down with my beautiful granddaughter in Henley. She is just a wee soul and it brings home to you how awful things can happen, especially to the innocents like at Lockerbie. Life goes on and you must grab whatever happiness you can in this crazy world, I am sure there is still more good than bad in this world we live in.

I have been lucky in my life surrounded by so many great friends and people I love dearly. I have never had so many great cards and kindness from those so many good people, I am very lucky.  I think it is time to get out on the hills and clear my mind.

This blog is dedicated to those who died at Lockerbie and to all who helped with the tragedy especially the Police, Fire Service the Mountain Rescue Teams and Search & Rescue Dogs – the unsung heroes of this night of tragedy.

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Friends, History, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Views Political?. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Lockerbie – 21 December 1988 – A nightmare never to forget.

  1. Thank you Heavy ,very moving ,your words should make all who read them stop and think.


  2. Al Coy says:

    Well said wee Heavy! I raise a glass to you and all the troops – (I was called into work that night as our first aircraft cascaded north to replace Valley’s Wessex). RIP Lockerbie.


  3. heavywhalley says:

    Thanks Al -it is superb to get a few words from someone like you, one of my heroes, no joke mate! It is amazing how many top men were effected by this evil night. You take it easy maybe we will meet some day if I ever get that book finished.

    Take care Heavy!


  4. Gill Shackleton says:

    Here via a link from Raz- I remember that night so vividly, from the news flash on the BBC. I read the book you linked to (ordered for work as I work in a library) and can only imagine what you all went through. True heroes.


    • heavywhalley says:


      Kind comments – a tragic time and we all did our best with no lives to save. No heroes just good people doing their best. The book Trauma does give an insight into how basic the help was then.

      Regards Heavy x


  5. A night of frustration at Lossie, probably the only asset that could not lend a hand due to the relentless wind from the South, haunting monitoring from minute 1 on D&D.


  6. Derek says:

    We had the unfortunate luck to be called upon, 500 men from the Royal Highland Fusiliers the night before we were meant to go on leave after 5mth tour of NI……..we all remember those few days when all we seemed to do was count or pick up bodies. The Salvation Army and the WRVS were a god send as well as all those who opened there doors. I to was based in the school and slept in the gym were one of the lads used to play the piano that was there to keep everyone’s spirits up. I still have some grim images which will probably never leave me as a young 18yr old soldier those few days.


  7. George Phillips says:

    Fine words, Heavy, for a fitting remembrance of a terrible event. Thank you.


  8. ptsd17 says:

    Always remembered. RIP!


  9. David Brisco says:

    Remember this really well debris and carnage spread over a wide landscape. Have passed the place many times since and always remember. Rather than bodies worst was the christmas presents spread across the landscape. After Lockerbie came kegworth. Why does this stuff happen near christmas,


  10. David Brisco says:

    Twenty five years next year maybe all involved should reunite and put some ghosts to rest


  11. David Thomas says:

    I was on my way up with Saints for the Christmas Grant in Scotand in my own car as I was not doing the New year on Arran, I sat in a friends house watching the news, as soon as I saw It I had to leave to catch the rest of the team up as they were already on their way instead of over-nighting at Stafford. By the time I caught up with them at Lockerbie it was daylight. I’ve never seen such a sight of deverstation like it. I can remember grabbing my kit from the back of the 4 tonner only to met by a radio reporter asking what it was like out there, I replied what the hell did he think it was like out there. I can still remember seeing you and Tullach in the school gym that was turned into our accomodation.
    I still find it difficult driving up the M74 every time we travel up to visit friends & family in Scotland, but 6 years later my youngest son was born on the 21st so I have something positive to think about. Tonight we went out to celebrate his 18th birthday, but I also raised a glass in rememberance to that awful night.


  12. Paul DUckworth says:

    Hi Heavy,
    I think the shear scale of the incident raised lots of issues about how we, as rescue teams, coped with death. Many people were affected in many different ways and the lads who returned home to their families found it extremely difficult to accept I think. With all that was going on in your personal life Heavy, all the other troops (me included) have never forgotten how much of a pillar of strength you were. We all headed up to Aviemore for the rest of the grant and stayed as a team and were able to talk about the incident together as a group, washed down with plenty of amber nectar. I think this helped all the saints lads at the time. Keep up the good work we man. Quackers.


    • heavywhalley says:

      Thanks again Paul – it brings a tear to my glasses, we were surrounded with the best of troops guys like you and so many more.It was the right guys at the right time. That is what shocked me how it affected tough guys as well as we softies.

      Some of the establishment never forgave me for asking for help it was not the thing to do at that time. I am glad we did and started a ball rolling that will help the future teams and emergency workers.

      It was because we were a team and all knew each other we could spot the changes that occurred and I did change as did several others.

      I appreciate a comment such as yours so much. Have a fun Christmas and New Year give the family a huge cuddle from me. Please come to a re union some day.

      Your good friend Heavy! .. , i


  13. David Steane says:

    Dave –
    Interesting – if somewhat upsetting – article, and a terrible, sad time for all. One of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to man.
    Before we moved north from Yorkshire to Fife, if we were heading for a camping holiday to the West Highlands, we’d always stop at Lockerbie on the way to pay our respects to those who lost their lives.
    Your article paints an horrific picture, and although I’ve read a bit about the tragedy, I still find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like to try and deal with this catastrophe.
    I absolutely agree with you that the contribution you and others in the Mountain Rescue teams
    gave to deal with the situation must never be forgotten.



    • heavywhalley says:

      Thank you David – I am glad that you have taken the time to reply, it is amazing how few knew what the Mountain Rescue and The Search & Rescue Dogs did. It is hard to write about it but worth if. we pass on what happened. To often after a disaster the workers at the coal face get forgotten, I will keep telling the tale whenever I can. It took me 15 years to visit the Memorial at Lockerbie an incredible sight..

      Regards and have a Happy Festive period.


  14. Danny Daniel says:

    Heavy, a very poignant story, It takes a lot to let it flow and tell it how it really was. I’m sure many troops will benefit from your blog and speak of these awful times instead of keeping it to themselves.
    Have a great Xmas and New Year

    Danny Daniel


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