A former RAF pilot who helped clean up the Lockerbie attack – the UK’s deadliest terror incident – has finally opened up about his demons.
Ron Graham was on Christmas leave on December 21, 1988, when commercial flight Pan Am Flight 103, from London to New York, was blown up by a bomb – killing 270 people.
The terrorist incident resulted in the scattering of human remains over a wide part of southern Scotland – and Mr Graham was one of the people involved in the clean-up operation.
Former RAF helicopter pilot Ron Graham, 67, was part of the operation to recover bodies from the Lockerbie terrorist attack in December 1988
Mr Graham said he was on leave when he was ordered to return to work and assist in the clean up, which has left him suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
The bombing was the UK’s worst single terrorist attack claiming the lives of 270 people
In the 31 years since the incident, Mr Graham, now 67, originally from Glasgow, Scotland, has battled PTSD, alcoholism, panic attacks, two mini strokes, and has been in rehab three times.
And around a year ago – as the country marked the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie attack – Mr Graham found himself homeless, after his fourth marriage came to an end.
Now living in supported housing in Cornwall, Mr Graham is finally able to open up about his experiences for the first time – and calls Lockerbie a defining point in his life.
He said: ‘It’s only in the past 12 months where I’ve felt comfortable talking about it. By talking about it, it lessens the impact.
‘I’ve come a long way in a short time. I can actually think straight, and I don’t have the flashbacks and panic attacks as much.
‘Sometimes you feel bitter that things didn’t go your way and you’ve lost things. I’ve accepted where I’m at but I’m still a work in progress.’
Recalling the day of the UK’s deadliest terror attack, Mr Graham said: ‘I was on leave, because it was just before Christmas.
‘I got asked, because if you’re in the air force and connected with aircraft you can recognise certain parts of the structure, and that’s what they were looking for.
‘They cleared as much as they could and then the military came in. The local population were involved as well, the CIA were there, and it was quite a circus.
‘There were 270 bodies to clean up.’
Mr Graham carried on serving in the military for a further 13 years, but tried to block out the memories of what he had seen strewn across the Scottish countryside
Mr Graham carried on serving in the military for a further 13 years, but tried to block out the memories of what he had seen.
‘As the years rolled by it came back to the forefront,’ he said.
‘I started having nightmares and panic attacks and that was a slow build up until the point I couldn’t function, and that’s when I came out of the forces in 2001.’
Later, as part of his daily commute to work at IBM, Ron found himself driving past the prison where Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person ever convicted in relation to the bombing, was incarcerated.
He recalled: ‘He got banged up in prison at HMS Greenock and I was working a mile and a half up the road, so I passed that prison every day and that b****** was in there.
‘I did that every day for three years and that affected me a bit, knowing that he was in there.’
Mr Graham first became an alcoholic when he joined the forces way back in 1985, and increasingly dealt with his problems by drinking.
Mr Graham said he has been married four times over the past 20 years and entered rehab on three occasions. The collapse of his most recent marriage left him homeless
‘You go into the forces and that’s the culture, that’s how you deal with it.. Essentially you finish your days’ work and then it’s straight to the mess,’ he said.
‘It was so accessible and cheap. And you can have a good night for less than a tenner. Most of the guys in the forces were the same. It was drink ’til the last man standing.’
When he came out of the forces in 2001, Mr Graham blamed the military for leaving him in a vulnerable position.
‘For ten years I was blaming them,’ he said.
‘But somebody sat me down and said, ‘did they put the drink down your neck? You did it to yourself’. I reevaluated and said, I’ve probably done it to myself.
‘We all have our own ways of dealing with things. Some of us are way off the mark. I was destroying my liver and torturing myself that I should have done more.’
Over the past 20 years Mr Graham has been married four times, and entered rehab on three occasions.
Mr Graham said he tried to deal with the trauma of what he witnessed at Lockerbie with alcohol
A year ago he found himself homeless and decided to drive to Cornwall, although he had little money and nowhere to go.
Mr Graham chose Cornwall because he has fond memories of holidaying in the county with his family as a child.
He said: ‘I was in Oxfordshire married with a family and had a house. But just after Christmas last year, everything went tits up and I found myself homeless.
‘I just packed my car and just drove, and ended up here.
‘When I was a kid my parents used to bring me down here with my brother and sister, and the memories of that, and I thought why not.
‘I always remember that road as you’re going to Penzance, the view, it just hits you. I thought that’s it, I’m staying.’
The military were brought in to assist with the clean up operation because of the size of the disaster area, with debris spread over several miles
After sleeping rough in Penzance, Mr Graham was picked up by the St Petrocs homeless charity, and moved to its night shelter in Truro.
And in the summer, after a four-month stint living in a St Petrocs property in Falmouth, Mr Graham was offered a place at one of the charity’s properties in the countryside, between Redruth and St Agnes.
The beautiful farmhouse, which was a second home generously given to the charity by a supporter, currently houses five people just like Mr Graham.
‘This place really resonated with me. It’s such an inspirational setting, you’re not in a city or terraced house or anything like that,’ said Mr Graham.
‘Here, you can actually think for yourself, you can breathe fresh air, you can sit in the garden with a book.
‘I love it. It’s just so inspirational, and you just look out of the window, and you’ve got the countryside, the animals out the back, you see nature as it is.
‘You see the rabbits running up and down the field, and foxes and badgers. It’s a whole different scene for me. Prior I had only seen it on the telly, on nature programmes.’
While in rehab, Mr Graham was asked if he would like to return to Lockerbie. He initially refused the offer but now decided he will visit the monument to the 270 people who died
The progress Mr Graham has made since engaging with St Petrocs and the drug and alcohol charity Addaction has been immense, he said.
‘I don’t miss alcohol as much as I thought I would. I still have my good days and my bad days.
‘I’ve had two operations on a spinal operation, plus two mini strokes and tinnitus. Combined together, that’s not great.’
He added that he still has some way to go.
‘When I was in rehab, they wanted to take me back there, to Lockerbie, to where it happened, and I point blank refused. I wouldn’t entertain it at all,’ he said.
‘Then I was in the Priory last year, and they asked me if I’d like to go to Farnborough where the remains of the aircraft are.
‘I thought, do I really want to put myself through it? I’ve seen it once.
‘But I have decided I will go back to Lockerbie to do the monument to the 270 people that were killed, and try and find some peace,’ Mr Graham added.
LOCKERBIE BOMBING: THE TERROR ATTACK WHICH KILLED 270
The Lockerbie bombing took place on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown out of the sky.
The New York-bound Boeing 747, named Maid of the Seas, was passing five miles above the Scottish town when the explosion tore it apart.
When first reports of a crash came through, many assumed it was a low-flying military training flight which had come to harm.
Flight 103 went down three minutes after 7pm, about half an hour after take-off from Heathrow, as it passed over the town heading out to the west.
The flight was running slightly late and should already have been out over the Atlantic en route to New York.
The cockpit section fell to earth at Tundergarth, about five miles out of town, landing in a field in rolling countryside within yards of a country church and graveyard.
A fuselage section came down on streets in Rosebank, on the northern edge of the town.
Meanwhile, the fuel-laden wing section came down on the Sherwood area on the western edge of Lockerbie, adjoining the A74 road, now a motorway. As it came down it exploded in a fireball made worse by ruptured gas mains.
It was in this area, Sherwood Crescent, where 11 Lockerbie residents were killed. No trace was ever found of some of the victims, who were vaporised in the fireball.
Lockerbie’s Town Hall and its ice-rink were pressed into service as temporary mortuaries and within 24 hours of the disaster, a total of 1,000 police had been drafted in, along with 500 military helpers.
In the initial stages, 40 ambulances and 115 personnel attended at Lockerbie. They stood down shortly afterwards due to the minimal number of casualties, with all those involved in the tragedy either dead or having suffered minor injuries.
The bodies and wreckage had come down in two main flight corridors, one of which included the Kielder forest in Northumbria, the most densely-wooded part of the UK.
At the height the plane had been flying, winds were more than 100 knots. Some of the lighter pieces of wreckage were found miles away.
On the night of the crash, police made an immediate policy decision to treat the disaster as a criminal investigation.
Public confirmation of what had been suspected from the outset came on December 28, when investigators announced that traces of high explosive had been found and the plane had been brought down by a bomb.
A later fatal accident inquiry was to determine that the bomb was in a Toshiba radio-cassette player in a Samsonite suitcase which ‘probably’ joined the flight at Frankfurt in Germany.
Of the 259 passengers and crew – 150 men and 109 women – killed, 188 were Americans and 33 were British. The others came from 19 other countries including France, Germany, India, Sweden, Australia and Japan.
The 11 people who were killed on the ground – four males and seven females – were all British.
Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of the atrocity. He was jailed for 27 years but died of prostate cancer aged 60 in 2012 after being released on compassionate grounds in 2009.
Earlier this year, a review of his conviction was announced. Some suspect he may have been made a scapegoat and that other Middle Eastern countries were involved in the terror attack.