On December 21, 1988, a commercial airliner exploded above Scotland, killing 259 people. Burning luggage and metal and seats and bodies rained down onto the ground. The little town of Lockerbie was in the debris field and, as the sun came up the next morning, the brutal scope of this disaster became more clear.
This was Pan Am 103 and it remains one of the most significant terrorist attacks in aviation history. Colin Patterson was a member of the Dumfries/Galloway District Council for Mapping and Zoning. It was his job—impossibly—to map where the bodies had fallen as well as pinpoint the final resting place of the engines, the wheels, the nosecone, and anything else that might help in the investigation. Colin was involved in the logistics of showing administrators around the debris field and, by default, he became the liaison for the grieving families. He got to know them all by name. He even helped design the memorial which stands in Lockerbie today.
Colin is a member of my family, and it is for this reason that I am not using his real name in this article—I want to protect his privacy. He's talked to my parents and sisters about what he saw that December night and, years after the wreckage was cleaned up and the bodies buried, he continued to usher people around Lockerbie with gentle reverence. So it seemed natural on the 20th Anniversary of Pan Am 103 to write an essay about his experiences. I offered to fly over to Scotland and spend a few days with him to get the story right. I wanted to pay homage to these lost souls.
Colin, however, found it all too painful and politely said no. He apologized but he just didn't want to revisit that time of his life anymore. And who can blame him for feeling this way? It would be like asking a firefighter to walk around Ground Zero and talk about what he saw on September 11.
I respected his decision but, as the weeks went by, the story of Pan Am 103 just wouldn't leave me alone.
Rather then shelve the idea, I decided to transform this moment of history into a short story, which eventually resulted in "57 Gatwick" (published in Glimmer Train, issue 72). The main character is loosely based on Colin—that same man who mapped the bodies and talked with grieving family members—but my main character had to become his own person. I didn't want "57 Gatwick" to be just a fictionalized retelling of Pan Am 103. I wanted the reader to relate to the protagonist, to feel the puckering fear that filled up his whole body, but more than anything I wanted to honor the dead that inspired this story.
For my own sake, I had to switch the setting away from Scotland. My fiction is usually rooted in my native Minnesota so when I decided to move ahead with the project I began to consider flight plans out of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. Going north, a flight to London would pass over the port city of Duluth. I began to see a Boeing 747 exploding at 30,000 feet and, if I closed my eyes, I could almost hear it. I imagined it falling to the earth and I saw the lights of Duluth rising up to meet me. At that height, how long would it take to hit the ground? (Answer: about seven minutes). The explosion would have blown people a part, and passengers who survived the blast would be strapped into their seats when they hit the ground at 120 miles per hour. All of this made "57 Gatwick" difficult to write because the people on that plane, they felt—there's no other way to describe this—they felt real to me. Mothers and husbands and sisters and friends and grandsons, they all disappeared and it was my responsibility to tell their stories.
I made the decision early on to collapse various authority figures into one main character. This would help with narrative flow and it would keep the focus on those who had died. For me, there was no need to capture the bureaucratic forensic investigation of Pan Am 103. One person on the ground, my protagonist, George McCourt, would be the lens through which everything else would be seen.
The issue of what historical details to use and which to abandon was also crucial, especially when it came to rewriting the story. I talked to my family about things they remembered Colin saying when he showed them around. They squinted into the distance and told me things I'd never in a million years come up with. The stink of jet fuel was everywhere in Lockerbie. Cadaver dogs were used to locate bodies and, one after another in quick succession, these animals died of cancer due to the petrochemicals that had soaked into the ground. These are the kind of details that make "57 Gatwick" feel authentic.
My family also helped me to understand how seriously Colin took his job. The respect he had for the dead—how he never forgot that families were grieving, and how he conducted his job as though it were an act of love—now that, that, was important to write about. My protagonist cares deeply about the grieving families, and he does so because that's what actually happened in Lockerbie.
As I drafted and redrafted "57 Gatwick," I also opened myself up to influences that had nothing to do with Pan Am 103. For example, one of the lead stories on the evening news in 2007 was about a car bomb that killed 24 people in Iraq. I watched black smoke rising above the rooftops of Baghdad and I wondered how my protagonist would react to such a scene on television. He would surely understand what an explosion like that did to human bodies. So in my story, I created a truck bombing that murdered 84 people in Iraq and, when my protagonist sees this on the evening news, it becomes a narrative fulcrum which helps the reader to understand how my character is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. How could he witness the aftermath of an exploded 747 and not suffer from it emotionally?
Writing "57 Gatwick" was a powerful experience for me, so powerful that most of my recent fiction has been inspired by moments of non-fiction. Last year, while I was working in Northern Ireland, I met a man who was blinded by a plastic bullet in the 1970s. His life story and what he learned about forgiveness was so compelling that I used it as the foundation for another story, "The Soldier in the Dark," which was published in Natural Bridge. It's set in Midwest America—it has nothing to do with the violence of Northern Ireland—but that moment of creative genesis comes from a real man who lives in the city of Derry. One of things I learned from "57 Gatwick" is simply this: start with reality and move the narrative towards fiction. Your world will feel more real if you begin with something true.
And if Colin Patterson, or anyone else who is intimately tied to Pan Am 103, ever reads this article, I hope I got the story right. I hope that "57 Gatwick" feels correct, and whole, and respectful. More than anything, I hope I've written something beautiful that rises above the wreckage of that plane.
This article was originally published, in a different form, in The Writer magazine.