With 40 percent of Americans predicted to be on the roads or in the air around the holidays, news stories ranging from the serious to the ridiculous are sure to abound. In her new book, "Tales" from the Tarmac, Claudia Helena Oxee, a longtime station manager and independent airline crew consultant, offers a glimpse into the strange and sometimes unbelievable happenings at the airport and beyond. In this last of three excerpts for HuffPost, Oxlee describes the tragic day of the infamous Pan Am crash over Lockerbie, Scotland.
December 21, 1988...
The day began as usual with a 2:30 p. m. general briefing, which consisted of Pan Am's daily flight movements along with a roster of both operational and passenger information that required special attention. My usual assignment was working a gate that operated three simultaneous flights. After the briefing, my colleagues and I went to gate 24/25/26, which was already deluged with queues of anxious holiday travelers.
At approximately 4:00 p. m., while in the midst of the hectic workload, two Pan Am VIPs approached the gate and asked me to bring my belongings and follow them. En route to one of their private offices, not a word was spoken until we were all behind closed doors. I was advised that Pan Am's flight 103 had just crashed shortly after takeoff from London's Heathrow airport. Accurate details had not yet been determined other than that the 747 jumbo jet had touched down at Heathrow at noon (GMT) from Los Angeles and San Francisco. The aircraft was routinely cleaned, catered, fueled and bags were off/unloaded during the standard two hour turnaround time while it was parked on the tarmac. The 747 was guarded by Pan Am's own security company by the name of Alert Security.
Upon arrival at Heathrow, the Frankfurt passengers transited to the awaiting jumbo jet and boarded the aircraft along with the additional passengers who were heading home for the holidays to New York's JFK airport. I was advised that a possible mechanical brought Pan Am's "Clipper Maid of the Seas" down over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, setting the entire village ablaze. Since I was a mature agent with life experience who was born in Germany and spoke the mother tongue fluently, my assignment, along with many colleagues, was to work on the cataclysmic Flight 103.
The airline is responsible to notify next of kin, provide lodging, transportation, meals, clergy, medical doctors, emotional and logistic support at the crash site and at points of departure and arrival -- in my case, JFK airport. The State Department is responsible for coordinating interaction with the foreign embassies when disasters occur outside of the U.S. Sequentially, official airline "disaster mode" tasks were relegated to Pan Am execs and staff and the course of action began.
Everyone who was assigned Flight 103 assembled in the lounge and was relegated a specific assignment. Myself and other colleagues were designated contact people. As area C & D agents escorted families into the lounge one at a time, I immediately had to verify the victim's identity via the flight manifest that we each had on a clipboard which listed the names of the 270 passengers and crew onboard Flight 103. When I asked the family to disclose the name of the passenger they were meeting, I was required to secure vital information such as their relationship to the victim and contact numbers. Maintaining a modem of decorum was a priority. Not having been professionally or psychologically trained in working disasters of such magnitude, inner strength and numbness enabled me to carry out my duties without falling apart emotionally as I stoically confirmed their worst nightmare.
At approximately 5:30, the relentless and despicable pursuit for media sensationalism already began at the terminal. Hundreds of reporters swarmed in like vultures ready to attack innocent prey. They tried to force their way beyond the sealed-off ropes to gain access into the first class lounge. They pushed through barricades that protected the families being escorted during their terrifying walk from "Area C and D" towards the lounge where catastrophic realities awaited them.
Meanwhile, the local Pan Am VIP's started converging in the lounge in an attempt to disseminate details to us from Lockerbie. We were advised that at 8:00 p. m., the CEO would come in and hold a private conference to update the families, which would be followed by a national press conference outside of the doors. When Tom P. entered the lounge and stood on a make shift podium, you could sense the collective sounds of everyone's heartbeat. All terrified eyes in that room faced him, and all arms were tightly interlocked with one another as they braced themselves for the unimaginable.
And then, emotionally, he made the official announcement: there were no survivors. For the second time that night, emotional paralysis befell the families and their unbearable pain could be heard around the world. We all held on to them, for had we let go, they would have fallen to the ground. The slightest glimmer of hope for survival had been shattered and our tasks were re-assigned from rescue mode to recovery mode.
While working the "room" that night, myself and several of my colleagues had been informed by upper management that Flight 103 was presumably brought down by a bomb. It was also established that night that Pan Am officials and Washington D.C. were aware of this time-framed bomb threat, since American embassies were put on alert several weeks prior to Dec. 21st.
As the investigative events unfolded from month to month and year to year, even to this day, the truth remains elusive.
Dec. 21, 1988 was the day the lounge was transformed from an opulent inner sanctum for the privileged first class passenger, to an urbane chamber of horrors for the next of kin.