December 21: Disasters in History
Today is December the 21st and the second day of our look back into the disasters and emergencies that happened on this day in history.
1988, Scotland, Pan Am Flight 103
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The tragedy that claimed the lives of 270 victims, 189 of them Americans.
It was clear within days of the Lockerbie air disaster that it was terrorism, notably against the U.S., whose flag was boldly portrayed on the airplane’s tail. The investigation into the bombing was the largest international criminal effort at the time. Not three years later the joint effort by the U.S.-U.K. had identified the culprit—Libya.
In November 1991, the two governments simultaneously indicted two Libyan intelligence officers—Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah—for their role in the bombing. Few, however, believed the bombing to simply be the rogue work of two intelligence officers. That was simply not how Libya, which had been under the authority of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi since 1969, functioned.
In light of our non-existent relationship with Libya, there the case likely would have stalled. But the collapse of the Soviet Union one month later provided an unprecedented opportunity for the U.S. and U.K. to take advantage of the power gap and push three resolutions imposing various economic sanctions through the United Nations’ Security Council. Libya was required to surrender its two nationals and pay “appropriate compensation.”
It took eight years until an agreement was reached. In 1999, the two men were sent to the Netherlands under three conditions: the men could not be interviewed, no one else in Libya would be sought for the bombing, and the trial would have to be before three Scottish judges without a jury.
Following a 36-week trial the court announced unanimous verdicts on January 31, 2001: Fhimah was acquitted, and al-Megrahi was guilty. A life sentence was imposed upon al-Megrahi, with parole eligibility in 27 years (the equivalent of 10 months per victim). The day of the verdict, then-FBI Director and now Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced, “The case is not closed. The investigation will continue until any individual who played a role in this tragedy is brought to justice.”
Yet Gaddafi’s government drew closer to the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, especially since al Qaeda was a common enemy. U.N. sanctions were lifted in 2003. U.S. sanctions were primarily lifted in 2004. Libya was removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008.
Then in 2009, Scotland allowed the convicted murderer al-Megrahi “compassionate” release due to prostate cancer. Gaddafi received him with a hero’s welcome. Although he was said to have only six months to live, he survived until 2012. His family, along with a few British relatives of those who died on Pan Am 103, are still proclaiming his innocence and trying to overturn his conviction. The case appeared hopeless.
But then the Libyan people revolted in early 2011, and the U.S. and NATO provided assistance to the rebels. Gaddafi was killed by his own people on October 20, 2011. Here was an incredible opportunity for the U.S. to gain custody of Fhimah, whose D.C. indictment still remains open, and the Libyan leadership who played a role in the bombing. At a minimum, here was our chance in the chaos, as we did in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, for the U.S. to at least purchase relevant documentation regarding the bombing. The change in Libya offered so many possibilities and slowly some positive news emerged.
Gadaffi’s son, Saif, was captured by rebels and was to be tried in Libya. The same was true for Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother-in-law and former intelligence chief at the time Pan Am 103 was bombed. Mousa Kousa, Libya’s intelligence chief from 1994 to 2009 (and an intelligence officer in 1988), had fled to the U.K. earlier in March. Scottish authorities reportedly interviewed him about Pan Am 103. With these events, perhaps we would finally learn more information. Again, disappointment overshadowed the day.
Saif was sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Tripoli in 2015, but released from rebel prison in 2017 and given full amnesty. He is reportedly running for president in Libya’s next election. Senussi was also sentenced to death in 2015, and reports are that his appeal is still pending. The British determined it had no reason to hold Kousa, with no indication if U.S. authorities ever interviewed him, and he was allowed to safely settle in Qatar.
The only new information publicly learned in the past few years came not from the government but from a 2015 PBS Frontline series “My Brother’s Bomber,” which identified Senussi and an alleged Libyan bomb expert Abu Agela, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, as individuals connected to the bombing.
The Crown Office announced that together with the U.S. Department of Justice, it was “seeking the assistance of the Libyan judicial authorities for Scottish police officers and the FBI to interview the two named suspects in Tripoli.” Whether this occurred or what was learned is unknown but the FBI said that it was “working aggressively ” to bring those responsible for the Lockerbie attack to justice.
1946, Japan, Tsunami
An undersea earthquake on this day in 1946 sets off a powerful tsunami that devastates Honshu, Japan. About 2,000 people perished and half a million were left homeless. This was particularly devastating to a community that was already reeling from the horrors of World War II.
Earlier in the year, on April 1, a tsunami had struck Hawaii, killing 159 people, but those waves had originated hundreds of miles from the islands. The earthquake that shook at 4:20 a.m. on December 21 was centered only 27 miles south of Honshu’s Kii Peninsula. The tremor had a magnitude of 8.5 and caused some buildings on Honshu to collapse, including some housing being used by U.S. occupation forces.
Even worse, three major tsunamis headed toward Honshu and the smaller islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. Local geographic features determined how intense the waves were when they hit land and how much damage they caused. In some places, the water receded severely first, providing a warning to local residents who were familiar with the signs of an imminent tsunami. When the tsunami hit Honshu, 20-foot waves obliterated buildings from shorelines and about 2,000 ships were capsized as they were thrown around by the mass of water.
In all, 60,000 square miles were flooded by the waves and 40,000 homes were completely destroyed.
2013, Australia, Fishermen Saved by Cooler
Two Australian men on a fishing trip spent 15 hours clinging to a cool box in the sea after their boat capsized off New South Wales.
They called emergency services when their cabin cruiser got into trouble and they were forced to abandon the vessel off Ballina.
A search was suspended after darkness fell but resumed on the Saturday morning.
The men, in life jackets, were found clutching the box near the upturned boat some 13 km (eight miles) offshore.
“They were pretty exhausted. I didn’t get too much of a hand getting them into their seats, which is to be expected, they’ve been out all night,” rescuer Jethro Lampe said after the men – work colleagues – were winched to safety.
After being flown by helicopter to the coast, they were taken to hospital for medical checks.
Skipper Paul Maher, 25, and John Lynch, 34, were celebrating the last day of work before the Christmas break with a fishing expedition, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
The boat began taking on water through a hole which had been repaired.
The Australian air force, coastguard and local residents were involved in the rescue effort.