Trinidad Express / SIXTEEN Septembers ago, the terror attack on the United States changed the world. Of the 2,996 killed when the planes flew into the buildings and field, fourteen were Trinidad-born.
They are honoured in a memorial on the grounds of the US Embassy in Port of Spain, and the place life ended for so many – the World Trade Centre site in New York where each year their names are read.
Of course, long before that day in 2001, Trinidad and Tobago knew about terror, through the shame of the 1990 attempted coup, the destruction of property and the deaths of at least 24 for whom there was never any justice or retribution.
But you may be surprised to know – even before the evil deeds of al Qaeda and the Jamaat al Muslimeen, terrorists had killed one of our citizens. It was an attack which, 26 years later, is still the subject of criminal investigation by people intent on pursuing justice for this Trinidadian and 269 others murdered when a passenger plane exploded above Scotland and fell to the village below.
Home for Christmas
Names have potency so let’s speak his. Anthony Selwyn Swan. Trinidad born, US resident, 29-years-old. Sitting in seat 44K, on the right side, a window seat, at the rear of the double decker Boeing 747 – Pan American Flight 103, as it prepared to head out over the Atlantic.
Swan had boarded with the others at London’s Heathrow Airport, destination New York. Among the passengers – 35 America students, twelve children, a baby, a 79-year-old woman, 21 countries represented. The flight took off at 6.25p.m. December 21, 1988. At that point, they had 38 minutes to live.
FLASHBACK: The events following the Lockerbie boming reported by CNN The aircraft reached cruising altitude six miles above the town of Lockerbie, Scotland when the bomb exploded in the cargo compartment at the front of the plane. The nose and cockpit peeled away. Passengers would have been stunned by the cold, roar and darkness, the decompression knocking them unconscious as the beheaded plane began to fall, the engines still at full throttle. The people of Lockerbie, population 3,000, reported the sound of constant thunder then what appeared to be a flaming meteor. A minute after the bombing, a fuel filled wing, part of the passenger compartment atatched, came down in a residential area, killing eleven on the ground, setting fire to the houses. Wreckage fell in and around the town, the cockpit in a sheep pasture. The pathologist would later report that more than half the passengers would have regained consciousness as the fuselage fell to a lower altitude, and that two, whose bodies were found four days later, had survived the fall but died from exposure from the cold. It was four days before Christmas. Anthony Swan was one of the people who fell on the town of Lockerbie. The newspapers would report bodies in groups of five, ten , twenty found in gardens, roads, parking lots, fields, and roofs, some so normal they appeared asleep, others barely recognisable. Eight bodies were never recovered.
It took three years before charges were brought against two Libyans and another eight years before international sanctions and negotiations with then Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi before they were handed over. In 2001, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted. The Scots gave him a 27 year prison term for killing 270 people.
HONOURING THE LOST
Lockerbie would become a place of mass mourning, families flooding the town in search of loved ones lost. And to this day there is a yearly pilgrimage by still grieving families to places created by town folk. The focus is Dryfesdale Cemetery where you will find the Garden of Remembrance and Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial listing the victims.
And at the cemetery caretakers’ cottage, converted to honour the victims and town, you will find a dozen books on the Lockerbie Bombing, reams of investigation reports, and images from that day of death. You will also find folders containing the details of each passenger, family connections, occupation, where they were going, coming from, messages from loved ones, a summary of their lives.
Anthony Swan’s name is there. But save for his seat number, and date of birth and death, the page is blank. Nothing is publicly known of him. Until now.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Point Fortin is a town that sits on Trinidad’s southwestern peninsular, a place so apart from the rest of the country that it could make a good case for autonomy. It is here that Grenada born couple James and Joselyn Swan came to make a life, settling in Cap de Ville. Anthony Swan would be their last born of seven siblings, said his brother Gordon, who we found after an exhaustive search of the village last month.
Anthony Swan’s name etched on the memorial remembering the vicitims of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 Gordon, now 65-years-old and a retired secondary school teacher said Swan attended the area primary school and then evening classes at the government vocational centre doing a course in cabinet-making. With prospects grim, he dropped out of an apprenticeship programme at the Presto Praesto youth camp and decided to follow the migratory route made by so many from Point Fortin – and chase his dreams in New York.
At age 19, he travelled to the US on his own, meeting up with friends who had made the journey earlier, and started looking for work. And from all reports, says Gordon, Swan did well, securing a job as a courier moving parcels around the Big Apple, doing part time dee jay gigs, marrying, having three children by 1998, when he was invited by his sister to come to London where she was then resident. He accepted. It sealed his fate.
Gordon Swan says he remembers the events vividly.
“He was on his way back to New York when the plane was bombed. It was my sister who called me to say what happened. I had heard the news earlier. I had my suspicion he was on board because it was around the time he was flying. And from what we saw on the news, we knew there could not be any survivors”. That feeling of knowing for sure, said Gordon, cannot be explained in words.
“It was a shocker. It devastated the entire family. Our parents were still alive then”.
The Swans would have a memorial service for him in Point Fortin. But this family would be one of the lucky ones. Anthony Swan was sitting in that part of the plane that experts said was not damaged by the bomb. He was one of the passengers who tumbled from the wreckage as it fell from the sky. His race would have made the task of identification easier. In 1988, Pan Am was still flying the Port of Spain route. The airline flew Swan’s Point Fortin family to New York for his funeral. It was obvious he has suffered traumatic head injuries, said Gordon. But they got to see him one last time. Swan is buried in a New York graveyard.
Like any other youth from the area at the time, said his brother, Anthony Swan went to the US “looking for a better way of life”. He would have been 57-year-old this year had the randomness of life not found him on Flight 103. But this is what Swan left.
Before he left for the United States, Swan was already a father. The daughter would be raised by extended family after her mother drowned at the Guapo Beach, her body never recovered.
In 2008 Libya’s then leader Muammar Gadaffi, though never admitting involvement,paid $1.5 billion into a US compensation fund for relatives of victims of terror attacks blamed on Libya. Swan’s wife and children in the US benefitted, including his orphaned Trinidadian daughter, dealt this cruel fate at far too young an age. But she done well despite the trauma and still honours her parents, we can report.
But the story does not end there. The only person convicted in the terror attack, Abdelbaset al Megrahi, died in 2012, three years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and freed from jail in Scotland on compassionate grounds.
However, last October, Scottish prosecutors announced that two Libyans have been identified as suspects in the bombing, with a $US 5 million reward out for suspects. The world may have moved on. But in Lockerbie, they never forgot.
NOTE: Richard Charan visited Lockerbie last July. He intends providing a profile of Swan to the Lockerbie Garden of Remembrance site so that empty pages in the books remembering the victims, will also tell his story.