I missed the Lockerbie flight by minutes
- BBC News by Guy Smith 29 August 2008 10:52 UK
Two-hundred-and-seventy people died in the Lockerbie plane bombing nearly 20 years ago. As new questions are raised over the conviction of the bomber, one man continues to marvel at his lucky escape from the doomed flight.
At Heathrow Airport on 21 December 1988, Jaswant Basuta checked in for Pan Am flight 103 to New York in plenty of time.
"After all," he thought, "you can't be too careful - what with the Christmas rush and everything."
Tomorrow was an important day. The next morning, the 47-year-old car mechanic was due to start a new job and his wife, Surinder, was coming to the airport to collect him.
Some relatives from nearby Southall had come to see him off at the terminal and they decided to take Jaswant for a drink in the bar upstairs.
Jaswant was by no means a heavy drinker but on the odd occasion when there was cause for celebration, he was partial to a Carlsberg Special Brew.
And what with all his relatives here, today certainly was a special occasion. No doubt about it. One drink led to another. And another. And slowly Jaswant wasn't in such a rush anymore.
"When his glass is empty, make sure you pour him another," his brother-in-law said to the barman. The barman duly obliged.
Row at the gate
Finally, he insisted he really must be going and it was only as he tore himself away that he realised the time was rapidly approaching flight time: six o'clock.
"Pan Am 103, New York, Gate Closing," was flashing on the departure screen.
It was one of those awful, sinking, slow-motion moments when one suddenly becomes very sober, very quickly. Or at least one tries to.
He said a hurried farewell, grabbed his bag and ran for the departure gate. An Olympic athlete wouldn't have made it in time but that didn't stop Jaswant trying.
He made it quickly through passport control and security and thundered down the travelator, only to arrive at the gate to see the room empty except for the Pan Am ground crew breezily tidying up at the desk.
They were not impressed with his athletic prowess. No matter how much the slightly tipsy Jaswant pleaded, begged and argued the ground crew didn't give any, well, ground.
Why me? Why was I saved?
Voices were raised on both sides, but it was no good. Through the window he could see the 747 jumbo jet gently pushed back from the gate and slowly taxi away under the sodium lights towards the end of the runway. It was just after six o'clock.
A thoroughly dejected Jaswant drifted away and prepared to spend a fitful night on a row of seats in the departure lounge. He felt unable to call home immediately and face the music.
After a couple of dozy hours, things went from bad to worse. Across the hall Jaswant saw two policemen walking purposefully towards him. "Are you the passenger who missed the Pan Am flight?"
Confused, he was bundled away. The police station at Heathrow airport is not a friendly place if you're just suspected of having caused Britain's worst terrorist attack.
For although Jaswant wasn't aware of it, 38 minutes after take off, Pan Am flight 103 had blown up over the Scottish borders town of Lockerbie killing all 259 passengers and crew on board and 11 people on the ground.
The Heathrow police had quickly discovered that one passenger - a certain Basuta, J, Mr - was a no-show at the gate. Pan Am ground crew had been anxious not to delay the departure of the flight and admitted that - in a breach of security regulations - his suitcase had been left on board.
There was more to come. Jaswant is a Sikh. Just three years before, Sikh terrorists had been suspected of blowing up an Air India jumbo jet over the North Atlantic, killing all 329 on board. To make matters worse, this Sikh had come to London from Belfast just two days before. (ed:During this time the IRA was engaged in bombing in Northern Ireland) The police could be forgiven for thinking they had the case cracked before the fires of Lockerbie had been extinguished.
But when the officers started to question their befuddled suspect on suspicion of having caused Britain's biggest mass murder, it became clear he was innocent. When the desk officer got through to the Basuta home near New York, there was much wailing in the background and when Mrs Basuta finally came on the line, he came straight to the point.
But before he could explain, an inconsolable Surinder sobbed down the line, "Yes, I've heard on the TV. My husband's plane has crashed."
The officer told her that her husband was in fact sitting beside him, but it took some moments for the truth to sink in.
'God had mercy'
"It was the happiest moment of my life," says Jaswant, now 67, with tears welling up in his eyes. "We cried and cried and cried."
It proved to be a turning point of his life.
"Why me? Why was I saved? I should have been the 271st victim and I still feel terrible for all the other people who died."
That day, I was given the gift of life
Even now, nearly 20 years on, the experience continues to have a profound effect on this life. He has become a more humble and spiritual person.
"I keep thinking why did God have mercy on me? I hadn't even been very religious up until that point in my life. God gave me a second chance."
Jaswant doesn't often talk about that night he escaped death.
"That day, I was given the gift of life... all over again. It was as if a voice in my head said: 'Now do something good with your life!' It is my duty to repay that gift by helping others in any way I can - and this is what I try to do."
Months after the crash, the FBI showed him a photograph of a battered and partially-burned suitcase which they believed was his. It had been recovered from the wreckage at Lockerbie.
"They asked me if I wanted it back. But what would I do with that? I have my life and my family, what more do I need?"
Guy Smith is producer of The Conspiracy Files: Lockerbie, which is broadcast on Sunday, 31 August 2008 at 2100 BST on BBC Two
Find out more
The Conspiracy Files: Lockerbie is on BBC Two on Sunday 31 August at 2100 BST or catch up on iPlayer after the broadcast