The Lockerbie investigator says no one could process the attack at the time
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
The afternoon of December 21, 1988, reports were just emerging of widespread wreckage raining down on the town of Lockerbie, Scotland - fallout from the mid-air explosion of a passenger plane.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We heard a tremendous shudder on the ground as though it was an earthquake and then this enormous ball of flame.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was just an inferno. And they could have known nothing about it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The whole sky lit up, and it was virtually raining fire - liquid fire.
SUMMERS: Investigators later determined a bomb had blown Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky, killing 270 people, including 190 Americans.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REMEMBERING PAN AM FLIGHT 103")
DICK MARQUISE: The magnitude of that crash never really hit home to most people in the United States. I don't know that it hit home to most people in the FBI.
SUMMERS: Retired FBI special agent Dick Marquise initially led the U.S. investigation. He's talking there in an FBI documentary. And today, with the alleged bomb maker behind the attack appearing before a U.S. court, we wanted to get his perspective on this moment. Dick Marquise, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
MARQUISE: Thank you. Good afternoon.
SUMMERS: So let's start with what you said there in that documentary about the magnitude of this crash. The crime scene was huge - 845 square miles. So can you tell us about the scope of the investigation that followed?
MARQUISE: Well, clearly, this crime occurred over Scotland, and it was 4,000 miles from the shores of the United States. So it really - as I said in that piece, I'm not sure that people in the United States focused on it the way we did after 9/11. This investigation, 1988 to 1991, encompassed dozens of countries, hundreds of police officers, intelligence agents, the collection of the evidence over 845 square miles. It was the most significant crime scene and investigation in history up to that point.
SUMMERS: You also said that you weren't sure that the magnitude of the crash hit home, even to most people in the FBI. What did you mean by that?
MARQUISE: Well, the fact that it took place literally 4,000 miles from our shores, even though it was an American carrier, 190 Americans, the United States was the target of that attack, the fact that it occurred five time zones away from us at night - it didn't hit home the way Oklahoma City, the way that September 11 and the various terrorist crimes that we've seen in the United States since 1988. And I'm not sure because the media coverage disappeared, mostly in the United States, very quickly. And it fell out of the consciousness of most people because it also took approximately three years before we had publicly identified who was responsible for this.
SUMMERS: Did the Lockerbie bombing and the investigation that followed change the way that terrorism was investigated and crimes of this sort were prosecuted?
MARQUISE: Well, it did. Certainly, the laws that prohibited this type of activity were not even passed in the United States until 1986 that made it a law for - made it against the law for someone abroad to kill an American during the course of a terrorist attack. Prior to that, someone could do it with impunity, get away with it, and they couldn't be prosecuted. But this case brought police and intelligence agencies together in an unprecedented way to collect information, share information and eventually bring people to justice, the first time in a court sitting in the Netherlands - Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands in 2000.
SUMMERS: As we mentioned, you initially led the U.S. investigation. So I'm curious, all these years later, do you still have personal connections with families of the victims? And I wonder, are there any promises you made to them back then that you still remember today?
MARQUISE: The only promise I ever made and one public comment that I made to them was that we were going to do everything we could to bring justice. People had asked about closure. I don't know that you ever get closure from something like this, but I promised that we would do everything we could to bring those responsible to justice. And I was very disappointed years ago when all we brought to court the first time were two people. And I'm hoping that with Mr. Masud coming into the United States that he will provide that additional data, additional information that will allow investigators to focus in on other people who may still be alive that were responsible for this attack.
SUMMERS: Are you still in touch with any families of the victims that you met back then?
MARQUISE: I am. I - every year, I go to Arlington. I'll be going again next week on December 21 at 1:30. Arlington Cemetery, there's an annual commemorative event that I have attended most years since that memorial was erected in the mid-1990s. And I still stay in touch with some of those folks.
SUMMERS: We've got about a minute left with you, and I'd like to ask you personally, what does this day mean to you after nearly 34 years to see one of the chief suspects of this bombing in court in the U.S.?
MARQUISE: I think it is significant, and not just so - it's not for me. It's for those people who lost loved ones on that airplane. It's for Americans to finally see somebody in a U.S. court that we believe was responsible for killing their loved one. And it is a good feeling for that. And I hope that these families can walk away, getting additional information that will allow them - you never put it behind you but allow them to maybe sleep better at night.
SUMMERS: That's retired FBI special agent Dick Marquise, who led the American investigation into the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. Thank you so much for joining us today.
MARQUISE: Thank you. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.