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'The people needed support'

When on 21 December 1988 a plane exploded above a small Scottish town, Salvation Army teams rushed there to help. Thirty years later, the organisation has become part of the community and is still serving the people of Lockerbie, writes Philip Halcrow

Wreckage was strewn among the roofs

‘WORD came in that there had been a disaster,’ remembers Colonel Derek Elvin, who in December 1988 was the leader of The Salvation Army in southwest Scotland. Immediately, he and other Salvation Army ministers set off from the Glasgow area. ‘It took us about an hour and a half by road to reach Lockerbie,’ he says.

Four days before Christmas 30 years ago, a bomb exploded on a Pan Am flight above the small town. The 259 people on board and 11 residents on the ground were killed.

‘The police were setting up the response when we got there,’ says Derek. ‘They commandeered the secondary school and made it a base from which they would plan operations. We were given a space in the school library and asked to establish the work we needed to do.

‘We sent our mobile canteen to Sherwood Crescent, where one of the plane’s engines hit the ground and where there were already workers trying to deal with the immediate aftermath. The people were distraught and needed support.

‘That same night we went to another area, Park Place, where part of the fuselage came down. Wreckage was strewn among the roofs of the houses, including suitcases and bodies – all visible to these ordinary people in their homes. We were asked to visit door to door to reassure people. The police felt that the sight of Salvation Army uniforms would be some comfort.’

Over the coming days, more Salvation Army mobile canteens arrived. Teams offered counselling to those working at the mortuary and served refreshments to emergency services personnel and to troops who had been brought in.

‘Because the explosion happened thousands of feet in the air, parts of the plane were strewn over the whole of south Scotland,’ explains Derek. ‘Troops were sent into the hills and told that whenever they saw anything they felt might have come from the plane, they were to stay with it until somebody came to identify it and move it.

‘Hundreds of young servicemen were standing out in the winter cold, sometimes for hours on end, looking after bits of wreckage. We were asked if we would provide refreshments as they stood there. It was a massive task. We co-opted some amateur radio operators, and they sat in our mobile canteens so that they could get directions to where we should go to support the troops.’

The Salvation Army had moved quickly to the disaster scene. But Derek reflects: ‘In many ways, the most important work happened in the 18 months after. We became aware that there was enormous distress in the town.’

Derek’s wife, Colonel Mary Elvin, and a fellow Salvation Army minister began to spend one day each week in Lockerbie, making themselves available to anyone who wanted support. Initially they set themselves up in a car park until the Roman Catholic priest offered a room in his church. ‘Hundreds of people made their way to them for support and counselling,’ says Derek.

Before they left Scotland to take up new appointments, Derek and Mary suggested that The Salvation Army maintain links with the town. In 1992, a charity shop was opened, followed a year later by a Salvation Army church.

As well as holding worship services and Bible studies, Lockerbie Salvation Army holds a weekly lunch club for older people, provides food and clothes to anyone who needs short-term assistance and runs a ‘pop-in café’, which serves soup, rolls and toasted teacakes free or for a voluntary donation.

‘Our café is popular,’ says Captain Andrina Downie, who leads the centre with her husband, Captain Chris Downie. ‘People say that it’s good company and they like the friendship that’s shown to them. In the charity shop, they don’t come just to buy things; they come for the conversations and the laughs they have with our volunteers.

‘There are still some people in the town who remember how The Salvation Army helped after the disaster,’ she adds. ‘But there are also new people in the town who don’t have that memory. Although they respect the importance of what happened back then, they see that the work that goes on here today stands on its own and is needed for its own sake.’

On Christmas Day, Lockerbie Salvation Army will be providing a meal for people who might otherwise be on their own.

Colonel Derek Elvin is still moved by an act of kindness shown by a resident on Christmas Day 1988.

‘The mobile canteen in Sherwood Crescent stayed there for several days,’ he recalls. ‘Some of the houses were quite untouched and people were still living there. On Christmas Day, an elderly lady from one of the houses came out to the canteen, bearing an enormous Christmas cake. She didn’t say anything. She simply handed it over.

‘Afterwards, Mary went to see her in her home to thank her for it. The lady said she wanted the people who were involved in the disaster to remember that it was Christmas Day, and she wanted to make a contribution.’

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