Remembering Lockerbie

August 20, 2009

Reuters Sports Editor, Pictures, Greg Bos recalls covering the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in the following question and answer session.

What role were you in when the bombing happened?
I was working on the Reuters pictures desk at the time, but was also part of the rotation system we had – where photographers could go out and cover picture assignments.

How did you hear about it?
I was at home nursing a bad cold, when staff photographer colleague Nick Didlick called and asked if I could get up to Scotland asap. The company had arranged for a private plane to fly me and two text journalists from Stansted Airport to Carlisle on the Scottish border in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Nick and fellow staffer Rob Taggert drove to Lockerbie through the night in the pool car with all the darkroom equipment. We arrived at Carlisle Airport at around 4:00 or 5:00am and I was told to stay put because a media helicopter was due to go up at dawn for aerial shots. I was the designated pool photographer on the first morning. However, it was a very foggy morning and I could not see any of the wreckage or the large crater. I remember the aerial pictures from the first morning were unusable. I was terribly disappointed after spending several hours in a freezing cold helicopter with blocked sinuses.

How long did you stay at the site?
I stayed at Lockerbie over the Christmas holiday period – about two weeks. Nick and Rob left before me, and I was later joined by staff photographer colleague Russell Boyce. We were housed in a hotel just off the main highway. They had planned to close for the holidays, but stayed open to accommodate Reuters staff and several other journalists covering the story. Everyday we would go up to the main crash site out of town and take pictures from a small church yard across the road. I recall it was very cold standing there for hours, snapping off a few frames at a time, or when something happened. The large crater was either off limits to media for awhile, or did not produce any new imagery. I was lucky – having the color camera in hand – when I captured the rescue workers carrying a body bag and walking past the wreckage of the cockpit fuselage. I believe at the time most of the other photographers were shooting black and white film. This image was published on many front newspaper pages in the UK and around the world.

What camera equipment were you using?
It was Nikon cameras and black and white film in those days – with some color film for big stories. It was quite a juggling act shooting color in one camera and black and white in another as there was always the risk you would miss something important that needed to be recorded in color. I even shot half a roll of Ektachrome transparency film – protectively – in case something happened to the color negative film we were using. I also had the misfortune of accidentally breaking a bathroom sink while I was tapping the air bubbles out of a stainless steel film development tank. The hotel owner was not happy about it, but Reuters paid for a new sink.

How did you transmit pictures?
We had two-wire connections to the land line telephone in one of the bedrooms – in which the bathroom was converted into a darkroom – and filed pictures using a drum transmitter. We printed pictures on 8×10 paper using a custom easel that had a white space for adding a caption. The captions were typed on sticky back paper using a portable typewriter. A black and white picture took about 8 minutes. A color transmission – of three separations (cyan, magenta and yellow) took about 7-8 minutes per separation – thus nearly half an hour to move a color project as it was called then. If the transmitted color picture landed on the picture desk in London with hits, often the whole process had to be repeated in order get the separation targets correctly aligned. It was a long cumbersome process that could keep a photographer up all night if the phone lines were bad. We also had to process a lot of film for clients such as the Washington Post and the New York Post. This was known as a ‘special request’ and helped to generate a bit of extra revenue.

What was your emotional reaction to the disaster?
At first I was kind of detached from the whole thing – just concentrating on getting the right pictures to illustrate the story. But after I photographed a distraught and confused mother leaving a memorial church service holding the hands of several children and being monstered by a pack of Fleet Street photographers – then going to the site of the giant crater where the remains of some of the residents were never found – it really hit home what a terrible tragedy this was. In 1992 I visited the memorial plaque at the small church outside the village to pay my respects. The memories of covering the Lockerbie disaster are still with me today.

A woman looks at the main headstone in the Lockerbie disaster memorial garden at Dryfesdale cemetery in Lockerbie, Scotland December 18, 2008.  REUTERS/David Moir


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Posted by Remembering Lockerbie  | Report as abusive

I lost three of my family in this disaster and spent endless hours calling the family hot line that night to be told what we already feared. My mother lost her brother I lost my Uncle an my cousin who was not even sixteen. Eight years for 270 lives sums up British justice in one word (PATHETIC). This man who I cannot bring myself to mention,is home to die in dignaty with his family at his side, 3 months, 6 months whenever that day of justice comes,at least they get to say goodbye to one another, we didn’t all we have is memories and a Christmas card that arrived on the mat the day a large part of our close family died.

Posted by Phil Maddison | Report as abusive

Dear Greg Bos,I live in Tokyo,Japan.Your story is a very good one,full of small detailswhich only someone who intimatey experienced can write.Some 20 years ago, a Reuters photographer developedhis films in a hotel bathroom where I supposehe could barely see things in red light.Color pictures were separated into three basic colorsand then transmitted on the telephone lines.The punch line came near the end of the story where you confessed that after the local church service it really hit you home…Expecting to be able to read another story like this one.

Posted by Tomozawa Junji | Report as abusive

Not too long ago the US snubbed its nose at the UK and housed 4 detainees from Guantanamo bay in the overseas territory of Bermuda angering the UK government.Is this the UK’s way of political retaliation against the US? It is humanitarian in nature (like the Guantanamo deal) and involves David Milliband (the foreign secretary to the UK who was shamed for allowing the Guantanamo deal to go through).Smells like a political deal to subliminally punish the US.Kathy

Posted by Kathy | Report as abusive

As the attack happened over Scotland, it was the Scottish Judicial system that prosecuted and jailed the Libyan. It was the Scottish system that released him. Why they did it you’ll have to ask them.You are swallowing the lies that the Libyans have disseminated.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Good piece.The whole story appears far from straight forward and it is worth checking out Dr Jim Swire’s website (Swire’s daughter was one of the victims).The media frenzy surrounding Mr Al-Megrahi’s return to Libya, despite assurances having been given that there would not be a ‘heroes welcome,’ can only be described as shameful.My heart bleeds for all victims of injustice, the pages of history are stained with their tears; My Lai, Air India Flight 182, and the countless numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan …Only one thing is an absolute certainty; the USA is in no position to adopt the moral high ground.

Posted by Alx | Report as abusive

Indeed, why is America taking the moral high ground?Having previously armed the Taliban, who are now killing British Soldiers, we are not impressed.Lets not start on extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Capital Punishment, wavering on banning land mines, and any other of the collection of moral dodginess they seem to get up to.How about the extra bodies that a local GP checking the caasualties found that were not listed on the passenger list? Could we have some explanations?It was indeed a terrible tragedy, and I worked for a while with one of the victims relatives, and saw the effect it had on her family’s life.Libya’s jubilation sticks in my throat. However, the decision was an independent judicial one, nothing to to with either the Scottish or British Government.As for Americans holidaying in Ireland rather than the UK, the British still remember that large numbers of Americans helped fund the IRA, and their terror attacks on the British mainland and Northern Ireland. It took 911 to wake the USA up to the reality of what funding ‘freedom fighters’ could actually mean.

Posted by Phil Taylor | Report as abusive

Any air disaster hits people emotionally, especially those who are the family and friends of those who die. Also the people who are first on the scene, whether to provide help or to record it in words and photographs. My heart goes out to all of them.However I commend the decision of the Scottish Justice Secretary and am proud to be a descendant of that land.The case for al-Megrahi’s conviction was based on questionable evidence, and the background is briefly and well presented in Gwynne Dyer’s article at  /gwynne-dyer-almegrahi-free-because-cas e-was-so-weak.I encourage US citizens to read it, and also to take note of the photographs in Greg Bos post above. They show what an actual plane crash looks like, and can be considered and compared with photographs from the Pentagon and Shanksville.I respectfully suggest that US citizens need to question their own government’s actions, not those of other countries, and a big thank you to those in the US who are already doing so.

Posted by Frances | Report as abusive