LONDON -- A Pan American jumbo jet on a Christmas flight from London to New York crashed in a Scottish village Wednesday and exploded in a huge fireball, killing 273 people, including all 258 aboard and at least 15 more on the ground in an inferno of burning homes and cars.
Pan Am Flight 103, a recently renovated 19-year-old Boeing 747, was en route from London's Heathrow Airport to Kennedy International Airport in New York when it crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, about 330 miles northwest of London, said British Transport Ministry spokesman Mike Vertigans.
The cause of the crash was a mystery. It came with no warning from the jet, which was fully loaded with explosive jet fuel and flying at 31,000 feet when it disappeared from radar screens at 7:17 p.m., 52 minutes after takeoff.
'All we know is that all those in the aircraft are dead,' said David Brook, air vice marshal for the Royal Air Force in Scotland.
John Boyd, chief constable for the area, said at least 15 more people were killed in the 40 homes and several cars destroyed in the crash, which rained debris over an 8-mile area.
Flight 103 originated in Frankfurt, West Germany, using a Boeing 727 and switched to the 747 at Heathrow Airport, where it picked up more passengers, many carrying Christmas presents. Its final destination was Detroit.
Pan Am spokesman Jeff Kriendler in New York said there was 'no indication that there were any problems' with the plane. The jet was at cruising altitude of 31,000 feet and 'precisely on course' when it made a routine navigation check at 7:15 p.m. It disappeared from radar screens two minutes later, he said. There was no distress call.
Kriendler said the airline had received no threats involving the plane or its passengers. Officials were searching for the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder -- the so-called 'black boxes' - for clues to the crash.
Royal Air Force spokeswoman Jill Sutcliffe said all other planes in the area remained on the screens, indicating there was no in-flight collision.
It was the worst air disaster in British history.
A number of Americans, including 38 students in a Syracuse (N.Y.) University exchange program, were among the 243 passengers. Also reportedly on the plane was the U.N. Commissioner for Namibia, who was flying to New York to sign a historic peace pact for southern Africa.
Witnesses told British television they saw the plane hit a gasoline station before crashing onto the main road from England to Glasgow, but officials could not confirm that report.
The crash left a huge crater and set homes and cars on fire, blocking the highway with flaming debris. Witness John Glasgow said he was driving on the highway where the crash occurred when 'the whole sky lit up' in front of him.
'There was ... an almighty roar,' Glasgow said. 'There were vehicles in the road ablaze, two houses ablaze, and the road is completely covered with masonry, beds, garden gates (and) apparently parts of the plane.
'There was a lot of smoking debris and fire, it looked as if the road was burning ... it looks to me as if the people in the houses wouldn't have any chance of getting out.'
Sutcliffe said the crash destroyed about 40 houses in two rows. 'It's very unlikely anyone in them survived,' she said.
Wreckage from the plane was spread over an 8-mile area on the southwest of Lockerbie, a farming village of 4,000, Sutcliffe said.
Christmas trees and gifts could be seen among the wreckage, which was still smouldering nine hours after the crash.
Witnesses reported a huge explosion and a 300-foot fireball when the plane crashed. Employees of a hotel a half-mile from the crash site said they first thought a local factory had exploded.
'We initially heard a rumbling over the hotel, we thought the roof was falling in, and then we heard a tremendous shudder on the ground, as if in an earthquake, then we saw sparks, then this enormous ball of flames going about 200 or 300 feet into the air. There was debris flying everywhere,' said witness Graham Byerley.
Sgt. Thomas MacDonald, a police spokesman from the nearby town of Dumfries, said all police forces in the area and Royal Air Force teams assisted in rescue efforts. Ambulances from throughout southern Scotland were sent to the site but sat idly because there were few survivors to rescue.
'The difficulties we are experiencing at this stage are the darkness, the fact that the bodies and the wreckage are spread over such a wide location and the fact that ... our resources are so widely stretched at this stage,' Lockerbie Police Superintendent John Boyd said late Wednesday.
Dumfries Royal Infirmary spokesman Lef Callaghan said casualties were taken to his hospital. He said of the five people hospitalized, two remained in serious condition and one was listed as stable. Others were treated for minor injuries.
'We have been told to stand down,' he said, explaining the hospital was told not to expect any more survivors of the devastation.
'The south side of the town nearest the main road has been wiped out,' Ian Fisher of Border TV said from the scene. 'Houses have been gutted. There are very small parts of aircraft now lying around on the street. There is a huge pall of smoke hanging over the sky from the burning houses below. Many of the people are in shock.'
Pan Am said there were 258 people aboard, including 240 adult passengers, three infants and 15 crew members.
Officials at the United Nations said the world body's commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, 50, telephoned his office Wednesday evening to say he was minutes away from boarding Pan Am Flight 103 to return to New York.
'Yes, he was on that plane,' said Macaire Pedanou, director of Carlsson's office. 'He called from the airport just before boarding that plane.'
Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration in New York, said the nationalities of the passengers were not known, but added, 'We believe a number of them may have been Americans.'
Among the passengers were 38 students in a Syracuse University foreign studies program returning to America for the holidays from a semester of study in London, a university spokesman said.
'I have 38 students confirmed as seated on the flight. I have talked with Pan Am,' said Robert Hill, a Syracuse University spokesman, who said the students were among 250 who studied in England for the semester and were heading home for the Christmas holidays.
He said 29 of the students were enrolled at Syracuse University, and nine were registered at other colleges but were students in the school's semester-in-London program.
The crash marked the biggest civilian air disaster since a missile launched from the U.S. cruiser Vincennes in the Persian Gulf blew an Iran Airlines Airbus out of the sky July 3, killing all 290 people aboard.
It was the worst crash of a Boeing 747 since a Japan Air Lines jumbo jet crashed into a mountain in central Japan on Aug. 12, 1985, killing 520. Four people survived that crash, which was blamed on a faultily repaired rear pressure bulkhead by Boeing.
The worst disaster in aviation history occurred March 27, 1977, when 582 people were killed when a chartered KLM Boeing 747 taking off from Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, crashed into a taxiing chartered Pan Am 747.
A Boeing spokesman in Seattle said the plane that crashed Wednesday was delivered almost 19 years ago and nearing the end of its economic lifespan, but a Pan Am official said the aircraft had been recently refurbished.
Pan Am spokesman Kriendler in New York said the plane was 'virtually reconstructed' in 1987 through a 'full-life extension program under the federal Civil Reserve Air Fleet Program.' The reconstruction, designed to extend the life of the plane for at least 12 years, was performed so the plane could be converted into a troop carrier if needed, he said.
Jack Gamble, public relations manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the 747-100 was the 15th of its model off the production line and was delivered to Pan Am in February 1970. He said Boeing officials estimated the aircraft would have had, over the last two decades, about 72,000 flight hours and about 16,500 takeoffs and landings.
'That number of landings is considered a lot,' Gamble said. 'The economic design life of the 747 is for 20,000 (takeoffs and landings) and 60,000 flight hours in roughly 20 years.
'At that point it requires more and more maintenance and becomes more costly for the operator,' he said.
The structure of airplanes weakens as the number of takeoffs and landings increases, since changes in cabin pressure cause metal fatigue.
However, Gamble said there was no reason to believe the plane had outlived any safety margin because with proper maintenance 'the plane should be viable for forever.'
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates civilian crashes in the United States, said it will send an aviation accident investigation specialist to Scotland to assist England's Accident Investigation Branch in the Transport Ministry, which is in charge of the disaster probe.
Spokeswoman Drucilla Anderson said investigator Bob Benzone was to leave Wednesday evening. The U.S. agency often participates in overseas crash investigations but does not take a lead role.