Rage over daughter's death in bombing fires doctor's fight for better air safety
Published on Sunday, October 28, 1990
The Baltimore Sun

FINSTALL, England (AP) -- Jim Swire is a country doctor whose days and evenings are devoted to his patients.

His nights belong to his obsession: airport security and the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed his daughter, Flora.

``Why, Oh Why, Flora?''

Dr. Swire wrote that on his briefcase, around a circular photograph of his firstborn. In frequent meetings with government officials, he makes sure they see it.

``You can see their hackles rising when they see a person they've allowed to be killed. I don't see why they shouldn't see it,'' said the soft-spoken, gray-haired physician.

Flora Swire, a happy medical student, a gifted artist and musician, was traveling to the United States to spend Christmas with her American boyfriend. She was one of 270 people who died when the plane blew up at 7:04 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1988, and rained wreckage on the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

 It was the day before her 24th birthday.

In the 21 months since then, her father has had periods of intense depression and rage. But his campaign to point out security flaws, bring the terrorists to justice and reform British airport security has been relentless.

 ``Rage is my secret weapon. When I am sitting at this desk, it's 2 a.m. and I have another letter to write but I want to go to bed, I just think about that flight, that warm airplane at four minutes past 7, and it makes me so angry that the adrenalin starts going and I can last for a few more hours,'' he said.

The desk is Dr. Swire's communications center: a large computer, fax machine and desk telephone to supplement a mobile phone tucked in the breast pocket of his gray suit.

There are many photographs of Flora -- smiling with alert, playful eyes -- in the Swires' sandstone house overlooking the Malvern Hills of central England.

A son, William, is taking a year off before college. Catherine, who saw her sister off at Heathrow Airport, still lives at home.

``She was excited about Flora's trip and even thought about buying a ticket, too,'' Dr. Swire said. He took a deep breath, fighting to keep the voice steady.

 ``I came within a hair's breadth of losing both of them.''

The Swires keep a comfortable house, where a Burmese cat has free rein over the Oriental rugs, the dog's long tail slaps against antiques and dinner in the kitchen is beef stew and home-grown fruit.

But talk around the table is about Mohammad Abu Talb, the Palestinian terrorist serving a life sentence in Sweden for bombings against U.S. and Israeli targets in Europe. Lockerbie investigators have identified Talb as a suspect.

A telephone call from a Swedish journalist takes Dr. Swire from the table.

 ``A [doctor's] family is used to being interrupted at the dinner table but this is just unbelievable,'' said Jane Swire, her voice trailing off, her eyes cast down.  ``I am a thorn in the flesh of the British government. Thorns fester and I am determined not to leave off  until we have some answers,'' Dr. Swire said.

Dr. Swire wants to know why Department of Transport warnings about a cassette recorder bomb like the one that blew up Flight 103 reached airport security staff after his daughter was dead. Why was a warning of a terrorist threat given to U.S. Embassy staff in Helsinki and other cities but not to the public?

 Why has the British government refused an ndependent inquiry, even after a U.S. presidential commission reported in May that the disaster could have been prevented?

 There were 259 passengers on the flight, including 31 British citizens. As spokesman for U.K. Families Flight 103, Dr. Swire frequently travels to the United States for meetings with the two active family groups  there.

In May, he risked arrest by flying to New York with a fake bomb in his suitcase to dramatize his belief that airport security is still too lax.

Dr. Swire, 54, learned about explosives during army service in the Royal Engineers. He says it took him six hours to buy the parts and duplicate the terrorist's bomb, substituting marzipan for Semtex, the zechoslovakian-made plastic explosive.

``When I smuggled the bomb on the flight to New York, and we flew up over Scotland and climbed the 31,000 feet, it was a strange sensation that the other passengers didn't have a clue that there was a fake bomb in the hold.''

Dr. Swire's record for interviews is 24 in one day,  and his news conferences are as well-run as any politician's.

 A scholarship in Flora's memory has been established at Nottingham University. But the young woman may be most vividly remembered in the dark circles under her father's eyes, a sign of his determination.

Dr. Swire said he has matured from initially wanting vengeance and having people fired to a desire for improved airport security to prevent another disaster. He admits the goal is distant. Dr. Swire said his initial rage was stoked by officials who treated him as an ignorant outsider.

``It made me livid,'' he said. ``I had seen dead bodies lying in pieces in a mausoleum in Lockerbie. The experts didn't know what the death of 270 people looks like and they never would. That's why they can forget it and have such a lackadaisical approach to security.''

 The Swires traveled to Lockerbie a few days after the disaster.

Families were told they could not see the bodies because it would be too upsetting, a policy Dr. Swire says goes against psychological practices.  ``Being a doc, I pulled some strings and the pathologist put my daughter's body aside for me,'' Dr. Swire said.

 There were flowers around her body in the makeshift mortuary, and the pathologist had clipped a lock of Flora's thick, black hair to give to the father.  ``My mind was blank and I half expected to feel rage,'' Dr. Swire said. ``But I just felt waves of sadness passing over me, wave after wave, a flying carpet of sadness.''

The Swires at first worked out their grief on their 16 acres of pasture land, planting 4,500 trees.

``I was so sort of shellshocked,'' he said. ``I began planting [the trees]. It was a mindless job but it kept me busy, just digging a hole, putting the tree in and tamping it down.'' Cherry, oak, beech and mountain ash saplings now grow in Flora's Wood. Some are planted to form a large ``F,'' a memorial visible only from an airplane.

The Flora Swire Scholarship

Founded in 1989 by Dr. & Mrs. H. Swire in memory of their daughter Flora who was a medical student at Nottingham University in England.


The University offers, normally triennially, an award known as the Flora Swire Scholarship. The Scholarship is intended to promote medical research and will be awarded only if students of sufficient promise present themselves.

The Scholarship shall be open to students of this or any other approved University and to holders of degrees awarded by the Council for National Academic Awards to read for a higher degree in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. The Scholarship shall be awarded on recommendation by the Board of the Faculty or equivalent of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The value of the scholarship is 5,100 per annum, together with remission of the appropriate University fee. No additional grants will be paid for dependents, travel, typing and binding of theses, or other expenses.

The Scholarship is tenable for one year in the first instance but will normally be renewed for a second and a third year, if necessary, provided that satisfactory reports are received on the student's progress. Renewal for a third year is normally restricted to those students who are by that time registered for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

The holder shall be required to read for a higher degree of the University of Nottingham in accordance with the Regulations for Higher Degrees. The Scholarships shall be held at the University but the holder may, with the permission of the Board of the Faculty or equivalent concerned and in addition with the Regulations for Higher Degrees, pursue research elsewhere for a limited period or periods.

The holder will normally be required to take up the Scholarship at the beginning of the session immediately following the award and shall pursue full-time research except for reasonable holidays, taken by arrangement with a Supervisor, which shall not exceed eight weeks (including public holidays) in any one year.

The Head of the School concerned may require the holder to undertake a limited amount of demonstrating or tutorial work which shall not exceed six hours per week and for which additional payment may be made. The holder may not undertake other work without the permission of the Board of the Faculty or equivalent concerned.

Forms of application may be obtained from the Secretary of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Undergraduate students may apply provisionally and confirm their applications in writing not later than the third day after the publication of their degree, postgraduate diploma or certificate examination results.