Death In Dunblane

WITH ITS 12TH-CENTURY CATHEDRAL and its picturesque setting at the edge of the Highlands, the tiny town of Dunblane was a haven from the chaos of the modern world--a close-knit country village where "crime" meant stealing somebody's garden ornaments and residents had every reason to believe that It Can't Happen Here. But last week, It did. In a few short minutes of wanton savagery, a heavily armed psychopath went berserk in the local elementary school, fatally shooting 16 youngsters and their teacher and wounding 12 others. Reeling from the nightmare in the school gymnasium and the panic that engulfed the community, Dunblane was reduced to the emotional desolation that always follows horror. "Evil visited us yesterday, and we don't know why," said the school's headmaster, Ron Taylor, his voice shaking. "We don't understand it and I don't think we ever will."

Taylor's eloquently terse summation was hardly likely to be the last word in the most heart-rending episode of mass murder in the history of the British Isles. Politicians of every stripe competed to divine the meaning of an inexplicably vile event. The villain, all too predictably, was an embittered loner and suspected pedophile known locally as "Mr. Creepy," and it seemed only fitting that the final act of his gory rampage was suicide. "I brought this monster into the world," his anguished father said. There were demands for even tougher gun laws in a country where gun homicides are about as common as water buffalo, and Prime Minister John Major's government promised to answer how and why Mr. Creepy got a license for the handguns he used to slaughter the innocents. The queen, perhaps determined to show that the royal family still speaks for the dpkingdomdp, scheduled a consolatory visit to Dunblane on Sunday.

These public rituals seemed sadly inadequate to the shining beauty of the class photograph, taken only the day before, of 28 irrepressible 5- and 6-year-olds in teacher Gwen Mayor's kindergarten class. Mr. Creepy--a.k.a. Thomas Hamilton, 43--walked to the school at about 9:25 a.m. carrying two revolvers and two 9-mm semiautomatic pistols in his belt. Two staff members saw the guns and apparently tried to tackle him; Hamilton shot and wounded them both. Then he strode through the halls to the gymnasium, where Mrs. Mayor's kids, having hung their red school jerseys neatly on the wall, were happily playing at phys ed. "He was wearing black earmuffs and a big black cap," said Laura Bryce, 11, a student in a nearby classroom. "He was the kind of man you have nightmares about."

This nightmare was real. Hamilton drew his weapons and picked off his targets one by one. Children ran screaming and were shot down: according to members of his gun club, Hamilton was an excellent pistol shot. Gwen Mayor, a pretty and popular teacher, died trying to shield some of the children with her body. Other victims fell like broken dolls around the blood-spattered room. Of 29 children present, only one--5-year-old Robbie Hurst--was never hit. Robbie, covered in his classmates' blood, was found cowering under the bodies of two friends after the shooting stopped. He had escaped the mayhem by crawling into an alcove at the rear of the gym, dragging his friends' bodies with him in a futile effort to save their lives. "He didn't know whether the man was going to come round into the alcove and shoot him as well," Robbie's grandfather said.

The gym, strewn with dead and wounded children, fell silent. Hamilton walked outside and began firing at a nearby portable classroom. "He was coming towards me, so I dived under my desk when he turned and fired at us," said 11-year-old Steven Hopper. "The firing was very fast, like someone hitting a hammer quickly . . . it was pretty scary when he started firing at our classroom window because all the glass smashed in and I got hit by a piece." Alerted by the gunfire and the pandemonium in the classrooms, school officials sounded the alarm. Headmaster Taylor called the police at 9:38. "A man with a gun is running amok in our school," he said. The first officer reached the school in only six minutes, but by that time it was over: Hamilton had killed himself in the courtyard.

An ambulance squad led by John McEwan was among the first to enter the gym. McEwan, who had helped organize the futile rescue efforts at Lockerbie, was not prepared for what he saw--like a medieval torture chamber, he thought. Staffers rushed to tend the whimpering survivors and were themselves covered in blood. Headmaster Taylor tried to staunch a child's bleeding with paper towels. A teacher, Stuart McCombie, cradled a wounded child in his arms and watched him die. "There were little bodies in piles dotted around the room," McEwan said. "Blood was splattered all over the floor and walls and there were bullet holes everywhere.

"The strange thing . . . was the virtual silence we encountered as we walked in. Children were sitting there in total shock with bullets in their limbs and bodies, unable to cry or speak," he said. "What will stick with me for a long time is the look of terror on the face of a 5-year-old who had a bullet hole through the arm and couldn't comprehend what had happened."

Word of the massacre spread fast. Neighbors saw officers running toward the school and some heard the gunshots; a helicopter came clattering overhead and ambulances screamed through the quiet town. Dunblane Primary School has some 700 students, and virtually everyone knows someone with a child in the school. Alison Curry, a trainee teacher whose son Ryan, 5, was in Mrs. Mayor's class, was leaving the school grounds just as Hamilton began firing. A friend said she ducked, then panicked and ran to the gym. She got there moments after Hamilton killed himself and found her son with two bullet holes in his chest. Still clinging to life, Ryan was taken to Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Sick Children and placed in intensive care.

Frantic with fear, hundreds of Dunblane parents converged on the school. "Victoria! Victoria!" a woman in the crowd screamed -- but Victoria Clydesdale was among the dead. Police directed the mothers and fathers of children who had been pupils in Mrs. Mayor's class to a home next to the school. Robert Weir, whose son Stewart was in the gym, was working in Dundee when he heard a news bulletin about the massacre shortly after 11 a.m. Weir rushed back to Dunblane to find his wife, Morag, at the school. "There was chaos when I got to the school," Weir said. "People were screaming--it was terrible." The Weirs waited about two hours. Then, Weir said, "they called out four names [and] our son was one of them. They took us into a separate room and I thought that was it, that Stewart was dead." Stewart, shot in the leg, was alive. "A bad man came in and shot at us," he told his father later. "He pointed a gun at me and I ran away."

Others got the worst news any parent can ever get. One was Dr. Kathryn Morton, a cytologist at Stirling Royal Infirmary, where some of the victims were taken. Morton joined the emergency team tending to Dunblane's survivors and, because some of the wounded were only 5 years old, quickly realized that her daughter Emily might be a victim as well. Emily, dark-eyed and winsome, in fact was dead. A colleague took Dr. Morton aside and gently broke her heart. "Later, she went to the mortuary," a hospital chaplain said. "She was just like any of the parents. They were stroking their faces, kissing them, talking to them . . . They were all lovely. They all looked peaceful, calm, as if they were asleep."

Dunblane and all Scotland went into shock, outrage and mourning. While similar massacres have occurred in Britain--a deranged man shot and killed 16 people in Berkshire in 1987--most Scots probably agreed with the Rev. James Harkness, an elder of the Church of Scotland, when he said, "One has seen such acts of evil, but mainly overseas." That of course was a reference to the United States, the land of crazies, and another version of the quaint notion that it can't happen Here. But Hamilton, who lived in a shabby council flat in nearby Stirling, was no interloper. He was a homegrown gun nut, a former Scout leader and, by many reports, a man with an unhealthy interest in little boys. A neighbor, Grace Ogilvie, said Hamilton had once invited her into his apartment to see his videos of little boys in swimming trunks--and that she had left feeling "there was something very sinister about him."

He was, in fact, notorious--a menacing oddball who, as British police say, had been "known locally" for years. Hamilton was forced to resign from the scouting movement in 1974 and had then formed youth groups of his own to continue working with boys. One group, the Stirling Rovers, had sometimes held its meetings in the same gymnasium where he ran amok; school officials, responding to parents' concerns about Hamilton's strange behavior, had thrown the Rovers out. Though he was never charged with a crime, Hamilton was an object of rumor and the butt of ridicule. He saw himself as a victim of persecution and, just days before his rampage, sent a letter to the queen pleading for reinstatement in the scouting movement. (A spokesman for the royal family said Hamilton's letter was never read.) Another letter, sent to the news media, accused teachers at Dunblane Primary School of "contaminating the minds of older boys with this poison . . . that I am a pervert."

But the rumors seemed to have at least some substance. Hamilton had been investigated repeatedly and was cautioned by police after he was spotted "in a compromising position" in a gay red-light district in Edinburgh in 1994. More ominously, he had an abiding interest in guns and a license to own four handguns and two rifles. The crucial question, in the wake of last week's tragedy, was why he had ever been permitted to own guns at all. "He was a pedophile," one police officer said angrily. "If he had had a criminal record, he would not have been able to carry a gun. The court system didn't take our evidence on board."

The gates to Dunblane Primary School are awash in flowers and homemade memorials to the children, and the sad round of funerals will last through the week. The gym will probably be razed. Destroying the town's innocence took only a few minutes; healing its heart will take much longer.