Unsung Lockerbie : A snapshot of what Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team did at Lockerbie.

I have been given permission to publish this account of what Tweed Valley MRT did at the Lockerbie tragedy on December 21 st 1988.

I was privileged to work with them as they were the one of the local teams.

It’s a superb account of what they did on 21 st December 1988 and it an incredible account.

Tweed Valley like all the other civilian Mountain Rescue Teams and Search Dog handlers are all unpaid volunteers. Yet the give so much supported by their families. It would be wonderful if the Moffat Team and others put down their accounts as it may be hard to write but what history there is.

What a bunch of great folk.

The 1988 Tweed Valley at the Lockerbie Memorial In 2018. Photo Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue.

Today members of the 1988 Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team met at the Lockerbie memorial garden to lay a wreath and pay our respects.

Below is a snapshot of our experience 30 years ago:

On 21st December 1988, the Team had arranged to meet at the team HQ at Thornfield Lodge, Selkirk for regular training. This was to be followed by festive drinks at the Cross Keys Pub in Selkirk for our annual Xmas draw. Just as we were leaving for the pub, a team member arrived at training saying he had heard that something had happened at Lockerbie. When we arrived at the Crosskeys there was nothing on the TV initially. It was a few minutes later that it came onto the TV that there was a large explosion at Lockerbie.

Our Team Leader (TL) at the time waited a couple of minutes and then checked with home to see if anyone had tried calling us there (Remember this was 1988 and we had no mobiles or pagers). TL had to find some change to use the payphone at the pub and spoke to his mother, who was babysitting and she informed him that there had been several calls from the RAF at Rescue Coordination Centre at Pitreavie Castle, Dunfermline. TL then called Hawick Police Station and spoke to a Police Officer and asked if the Team should be mobilised but he didn’t receive a definitive answer. TL then spoke to a member of the Team who was also a Police Officer, he agreed to speak to the Chief Superintendent. Shortly afterwards, we received the message to make our way to Hawick Police Station as soon as possible and that they would give us a police escort to Lockerbie as most of the roads were closed

The police were still unclear at this point as to exactly what had happened but asked that we attend as stretcher bearers for the ambulance service. It was thought that a military aircraft had crashed into a petrol station in Lockerbie. We were lucky in that many of the team members carried their rucksacs fully packed in their cars which meant that we could immediately deploy. Despite this many of the members had little or no personal equipment as they had left straight from the pub, yet they searched for several days like this without any complaints.

One member remained behind initially to make calls to other team members and to bring additional equipment. Besides the team members’ personal head torches, the team had 3 handmade search lights which had batteries inside wooden boxes which made them very heavy. The team at the time were poorly equipped for incidents of this scale. Our major incident kit at the time consisted of a rucksack with a hundred crepe bandages, 100 dressings and 100 triangular bandages. We went over to the police station at Hawick. There was one team vehicle plus a convoy of cars; about 21 people in all. We waited for 10 mins for an escort – it was single crewed. About 10 miles south of Hawick, the police car stopped in front of us and due to having no satellite navigation, he asked if a team member could go with him to help navigate. The police officer was a motor cycle cop who originated from Edinburgh and had no idea of how to get to Lockerbie. Approaching Lockerbie we travelled up the M74 (A74(M) at the time?) and overtook miles of traffic at a standstill.

Initially there had been a lot of talking and discussions in the back of the team vehicle but as we got closer to Lockerbie everyone fell totally silent. We had to negotiate around rubble and wreckage lying on the road and one member burst a tyre of her car. The town was still on fire when we arrived with a very strong smell of aviation fuel and smoke hung in the air. There were blue lights everywhere

We were taken straight to the Lockerbie police station. There were lots of press and TV cameras – some of the press tried to climb into the vehicle. When we arrived at the police station TL asked the team to wait until he found out what they wanted us to do. TL was met with total chaos inside, there were dozens of people wandering between rooms also trying to find out what was to be done. There were 2 members of the RAF mountain rescue team, dozens of police officers and one police officer told TL that as we weren’t the local team we were to go to the school gymnasium to await instructions. We waited at the school for almost a couple of hours there were hundreds with more and more police officers arriving from all the neighbouring forces. It ended up with over 1000 police officers. There were rows and rows of ambulances parked in a carpark with their crews. There were dozens of fire fighters coming in with soot-covered faces.

The two RAF members arrived with 2 members of the Dumfries and Galloway MRT. TVMRTs TL along with the 4 others went into the boys changing rooms to split the area into sectors for searching. There were a lot of comments about there being no survivors and TL told the team that it was important that we kept a sense of hope and that we would search for survivors until we knew otherwise. It was a cold, wet and windy night, the ground underfoot was very wet, boggy and slippy. In the first 2 sectors we searched we found lots of personal items, toys, Christmas presents, washbags, cases etc but no aircraft debris

We went to Tundergarth Church to regroup and reorganise ourselves. We had had nothing to eat or drink for hours by then. The hall keeper let us into the church hall and made us some sandwiches and cut up their own Christmas cake to feed us. When we left the hall the press were waiting. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and it was hard to even get back into the vehicle. They followed us up to the next search area where one member gave them false instructions in order to get rid of them.

We deployed to the next search area where we again came across whole suitcases, a briefcase, hand bags, more Christmas presents and a full unopened, unbroken bottle of whisky just sitting on the ground as if someone had laid it down. The drinks trolley from the aircraft sat on the hillside.

We came across some of the Lothian & Borders police who had started to locate bodies in the area. The police had no equipment, compasses or maps and no transport so we gave them a lift back to their vehicles when required.

We then returned to Lockerbie as we had completed our sectors and returned to the school gymnasium. The WRVS were there in force and were excellent, they fed us with soup and even fed TL’s search dog with dog food that they had arranged.

We were given another couple of sectors to search by the RAF which were on the hills above Tundergarth. We searched the hillside in lines and whenever we found a body a whistle blew, the line stopped and a note was taken of the coordinates of the location. We found a number of the passengers including children and crew members in this area, some were still strapped in their seats. We had been given a roll of sticky white labels by the RAF with which to tag the bodies and remains with the time, the person and the team that had found them. TL took a note of the grid reference of the bodies to give to the RAF search command and control in Lockerbie.

At some point during this time the farmer at Tundergarth, along with his family, took the entire Team into his house to get us warmed up and feed us with soup and hot drinks. Their incredible kindness has remained with us over the last 3 decades.

We returned to Lockerbie to debrief with the RAF Search Controllers, under normal circumstances we would have assisted the police in recovering the bodies but we were unable to do this at this point as it was a crime scene. It was extremely difficult to walk away from the children and leave them on the hillside – although irrational, we wanted to put blankets on them to keep them warm.

Teams were temporarily stood down between 24th & Dec 27th. Searches resumed moving further away from Lockerbie in search/retrieval of wreckage.

Some months after we received a telephone call from the police asking if any of our team required counselling. No one understood the importance of this at the time and refused it. The way we coped was to meet from time to time to sit down and discuss what we had witnessed, very often sitting in the Cross Keys having a pint. Ironically several weeks prior to Lockerbie, the local Council had organised a joint major disaster exercise involving an aircraft crash. We had asked to be involved but the organisers declined our involvement as they did not think we would ever be utilised in this type of situation.

An experience that we will never forget, the whole incident was so surreal and very traumatic. TL was proud to have led such a magnificent group of team members, who all gave 100 percent with basic equipment and little experience of an incident of this magnitude with not a bit of complaint. Some of us had been involved with several military and civilian air crashes in the previous years but nothing could have prepared any of the emergency services for such a magnitude of destruction.

Then as now, our hearts and thoughts go out to the victims, their families and the people of Lockerbie.

Thank you Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team and my thoughts are with you all and your families. Please if you were involved and your team/Agency did it would be incredible to hear what your team did.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Family, Friends, Lockerbie, Mountain rescue, Views Political?. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unsung Lockerbie : A snapshot of what Tweed Valley Mountain Rescue Team did at Lockerbie.

  1. Geoff Johnston says:

    My thoughts are as always with the victims their families and the enduring loss that they have suffered due to the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie.

    Still after 30 years the horrors and chaos of that night remain etched in my mind, as the kindness shown to us all by the people at Bankshill Tundergarth and Lockerbie who selflessly looked after us and gave so much.

    21st December is always a time to remember and reflect.  I pay my respects most years at the grave of CLB and CLF who were aboard the flight and are buried together at the village church where I live.

    Thank you for sharing this post but I was saddened to learn that I had missed this TVMRT reremembrance I did not know the event was to be held as I would dearly liked to have attended but proud to now know that this aniversary was marked by the team.

    We should also remember the TVMRT members and associates that helped out on that night who are now sadly no longer with us.  

    Respect and best wishes to all current past team members, Heavy and all Uk MRT’s, SARDA, service personnel and emergency services that do so much to keep us safe. 

    Geoff 

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you I am glad they did that piece it is all part of the story that few know about.
      I understand how hard it would be to write it but it fills a huge gap in what the local teams SARDA and others did!
      Thank you for your comments !

      Like

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