ON the night of December 21, 1988, 30 years ago this week, Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the sky. Nose cone and engine peeling from its sundered chassis, the wings and the fuel which would have carried the Boeing 747 across the Atlantic landed in a sheet of fire on Sherwood Crescent, Lockerbie.

Do you remember where you were, when you first heard about it? I was two years old – too young to be conscious of the disaster – but talking to colleagues this week, one vividly recalled a Christmas party suddenly jarred out of its festivities. As the 10 o’clock news rolled, another remembered a friend from the borders, frantically calling home to make sure relatives staying in the area were safe.

The way they spoke about it reminded me of the atmosphere around Glasgow when the police helicopter plummeted into the Clutha Bar five years ago, or when Harry Clarke’s bin lorry careened through George Square on December 22, 2014, killing six and injuring more. The Christmas lights continued to flash and flare merrily in the background. But your heart wasn’t in it. Those dark December days seemed to hang heavy on everyone.

In BBC Scotland’s Disclosure: The Legacy Of Lockerbie programme – broadcast last week – locals and survivors remembered how a strange sound in the night air over the small Dumfriesshire town became impossible heat, shaken walls, missing houses, missing people. The documentary gives powerful expression to the voices of ordinary people and their decency and resilience in the face of unthinkable tragedy.

The Lockerbie case is often discussed at a high level of abstraction. It is a story of global politics, of dirty tricks, and the possibility that a Scottish court wrongfully convicted an innocent man of the deadliest terrorist attack in British history. That’s an essential story.

But wherever the truth lies about who was responsible for smuggling the detonator into the Boeing 747’s hold, the human stories of the survivors matter too. And they’re hard stories. It is perhaps too easy to forget the intense trauma Lockerbie represented – and continues to represent – for people who found themselves caught up in the aftermath of December 21, 1988, and who continue to relive the experience to this day. Time has its distancing effect. Memory simplifies.

The plane was bearing from London to New York with 259 passengers and crew. Air traffic controllers lost track of the flight just after 7.00pm. Aboard were 35 students from Syracuse University. They were heading home for Christmas after a term studying in the city. They never arrived. In my mind’s eye, I think I had always envisaged the disaster as a consuming fireball in the sky. Unmercifully for the folk of Lockerbie, it wasn’t like that. The plane broke up in the air and descended to earth at high speed. As the jumbo jet’s engines were engulfed in flames, they reduced wrought iron to slag and houses to cinders. In the inferno, many of Sherwood Crescent’s residents – men, women and children – were never found.

The air was choked with the reek of flaming aviation fuel. The town stank for days later. Phonelines and powerlines gave out. Crumpled metal, twisted airline seats and broken fragments of the fuselage were strewn all across the falling flightpath of the plane. So was the luggage, haemorrhaging from the stricken plane’s hull. So were the bodies.

Reflecting on his mother’s experience as a nurse, a former colleague from the area remembered that “many medical staff turned up from across Dumfriesshire. None were needed. There were no injured”. It is difficult to conceive what this must have been like for anyone who found themselves in that place in the immediate aftermath and the days that followed – what they must have seen and smelt and felt. “It is very difficult to describe what you actually see,” Peter Giesecke remembers. He found the body of a young woman lying on the hedge outside his home.

When the dawn came up the next day, locals found their community was an aftermath of debris and a hive of activity. Firemen, police officers, families of the bereaved and the world’s press descended on the town.

Josephine Donaldson’s story gives a powerful insight into the intensely personal – but disorientating intimacy – relationships which the disaster forged between folk living in the community and people they had never met and might never have known, but for the bomb concealed in Flight 103’s hold.

Returning to her Lockerbie home after the impact, Donaldson found a handbag in her garden, “just sitting on the ground”. In another context, it might have been an incongruous sight. “I opened it up,” she said, “and there was this girl’s 21st birthday cards and I discovered she was one of the students. Her name with Nicole Boulanger and she was 21 on October 28 that year. When we did get the news on, I can remember seeing her mum there at the airport to meet her.”

More than 3000 miles separated the two women, but they were anchored in that moment, in the forlorn little package of a young woman’s life, which fell from the sky.

Later, Josephine joined local women who volunteered to launder the possessions of Pan Am 103’s passengers to return to their family members. “Some of the boxes the police would give you, you just did it on autopilot,” she said, “but others you maybe had a wee look through. And this particular day, it was a portfolio I was interested in, and obviously she was one of the students, and she had these lovely photographs, and inside her portfolio was her 21st birthday cards, and she had the same birthday as Nicole Boulanger. She’d celebrated her birthday on October 28. Her name was Amy Beth Shapiro. So I always referred to these two girls as my two girls.”

Quietly, without telling anyone, Josephine continued to lay flowers for both of these young women on their shared birthday, and their shared final day on this earth. Why? “Well, I had a son. And if that had happened in America, and I never got him home, I hope someone would have done the same,” she said.

The Lockerbie case was the subject of the first lecture I ever attended at law school in 2004. The stories of women like Josephine Donaldson, Nicole Boulanger and Amy Beth Shapiro were missing from the legal narrative, though the true responsibility of the murderous plot which connected the lives of the three women so cruelly and so unexpectedly was at the heart of the story.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was accused of orchestrating the bombing in the Scottish court in Zeist three years earlier. Lord Sutherland, Lord Coulsfield and Lord MacLean convicted the Libyan of 270 counts of murder, acquitting his co-accused Lamin Khalifah Fhimah. The critical eyewitness evidence implicating Megrahi came from Maltese shopkeeper Tony Gauci.

Megrahi withdrew his second appeal against conviction in the hope it would facilitate his compassionate release in 2009. Now, the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission has renewed its scrutiny of his conviction. If the commission determines that it is in the interests of justice for the case to proceed again, and renews its finding that there are serious grounds to believe the Zeist court convicted wrongfully, the appeal court will have no alternative but to revisit the case.

Thirty years after Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the sky, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is dead. Tony Gauci is dead. Lord Coulsfield is dead. But for those who lived through it, whose lives are forever marked by what they saw and felt, and for the Scottish legal system whose handling of the case remains powerfully contested, the Lockerbie case lives painfully on.