London — Britain commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing Sunday, recalling with horror the night a US-bound jet with 259 souls on board was blown out of the sky over a small Scottish town.
Memorial services took place in the previously barely-heard-of quiet community of some 4,000 people, forever scarred by the tragedy which killed 270 people including 11 on the ground.
Pan Am Flight 103 was only 38 minutes into its flight from London to New York when it was ripped apart by a bomb in the airplane hold at an altitude of some 9,400 metres (31,000 feet).
Lockerbie residents described how burning wreckage, liquid fuel and bodies "rained down" out of the darkness, crashing onto the town and surrounding fields after the devastating explosion up above.
The investigation into the bombing lasted years, involved the UN Security Council and led eventually to the jailing for 27 years of a former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet Al-Megrahi.
For some in Lockerbie itself, memories remain undimmed of the night the Boeing 747 crashed from the skies, four days before Christmas.
"It was the nearest thing to hell I ever want to see," said retired police inspector George Stobbs, 74, who had just returned home when he saw a TV newsflash reporting the disaster.
Rushing to nearby Sherwood Crescent, where the fuselage landed, he recalled: "There was this great crater, a great mass of burning. The heat was intense. I saw an iron gate melting as if someone was putting a blow torch on to butter."
Maxwell Kerr, 72, recalls finding poignant reminders of where the mostly-American passengers were heading.
"It was families going home at Christmas," he said. "We did find lots of Christmas presents lying scattered about. There was men, women, children and babies. It’s horrific when you think about it."
The attack — which killed 180 Americans, an unprecented toll in an age before the events September 11, 2001 redefined the word atrocity — plunged ties between Libya and the West into a chill which has only recently thawed.
The trail which led to Tripoli was uncovered by investigators who painstakingly pieced it together from traces of material from the Samsonite suitcase in which the explosives were planted, inside a Toshiba radio-cassette player.
They found that the bomb had probably actually been put on board in Frankfurt, from a non-Pan Am flight which connected with the doomed aircraft at London’s Heathrow airport.
An international manhunt by Scottish police and the CIA eventually tracked down Al-Megrahi and co-accused Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, although it took years of diplomatic wrangling to get them put on trial.
Al-Megrahi was jailed in 2001 for at least 27 years by Scottish judges in an extraordinary court in the Netherlands, while Fhimah was acquitted.
The former intelligence officer, who has always maintained his innocence, appealed to be released on bail last month, on the grounds that he has terminal cancer. His appeal was rejected.
For many, the image which defines the Lockerbie bombing was that of the decapitated cockpit of the Maid of the Seas, lying on its side in a field near the Scottish town.
In fact Flight 103 was late taking off — if it had been on time the plane would have been over the Atlantic when the bomb detonated, sparing the town of Lockerbie and probably leaving remains of the plane at the bottom of the ocean.
Lockerbie residents have been braced for a surge in media interest around the 20th anniversary — and while respectful of the memory, they also stress they have moved on.
"Now it is 20 years away and that means that a whole generation have grown up who were not alive at the time," said John Gair, 73, former principal history teacher at the Lockerbie Academy. "There has to be a balance of paying every respect to the dead and marking what happened but also allowing life to go on."