'They were happy kids' 16 children, teacher slain in Scotland

gunman kills self

March 14, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DUNBLANE, Scotland -- The Rev. Colin McIntosh knew them all. There was Victoria and Emma, Kevin and Ross, Mhairi and Brett, and all the rest, the 16 little boys and girls and their teacher who were murdered yesterday by a local gunman inside a gymnasium at the Dunblane Primary School.

"They were happy kids," Mr. McIntosh said last night as a light snow fell on the village's 13th-century cathedral. "They were taught to look after each other and love each other. And now, they're gone."

The slaughter of the 5- and 6-year-olds and their teacher has shocked a nation and broken the heart of a quiet market town of 7,300 on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.

The gunman committed suicide at the scene.

At least 12 other kindergarten pupils were wounded, along with one teacher. One pupil survived the mid-morning attack unscathed.

"This is a very peaceful place," Mr. McIntosh said. "It's not America. This is the last place you would expect something like this to happen."

At 9:30 a.m. yesterday, Thomas Hamilton, 43, armed with four handguns, burst into the school's gymnasium and went on a shooting spree that lasted three minutes and ended when he put the last bullet in his head.

"The firing was very fast, like someone hitting a hammer quickly," said 11-year-old Steven Hopper, who was in a nearby classroom.

Medical personnel described a scene of horror, as the gymnasium was turned into a killing field. Wounded children sat in shock, while others lay dead. The teacher, Gwenne Mayor, a 45-year-old mother of two, apparently tried to shield the children from the bullets.

The barrage ignited waves of pandemonium, as parents by the score rushed to the school, which has 700 pupils. Ambulance and police sirens echoed through the village, and the air filled with helicopters.

As the pupils poured out of the school, many were swept up by weeping parents. But for the families of the dead children and teacher, there was only grief.

One woman was seen on a village street shrieking, "Victoria! Victoria!"

Vivien Pope, a neighbor of one of those killed, 5-year-old John Petrie, cried out: "He was a lovely wee boy with a cheery face."

"There are some moments beyond human comprehension," Mr. McIntosh said. "This was one of those moments. We sat with the parents whose children were in that class as they waited to hear the news. For the parents, it must have been absolute torture."

Over and over came the refrain: How could so much killing happen in such a place as this, where the biggest local news in years was the opening of a new supermarket in January.

In Britain, fewer than 1,000 murders occur each year, and handguns are difficult to obtain. The death toll exceeded the 1987 Hungerford Massacre, which left 17 dead, including the gunman, Michael Ryan.

A lone gunman with an apparent grudge can do great harm. Mr. Hamilton of nearby Stirling was a disgraced former Boy Scout leader who was described by some people as "weird and solitary" and who was said to be obsessed with boys and guns.

An outdoor enthusiast who was balding and wore glasses, he had once lost a dispute with a local council over the running of a youth program. He was also said to have written a letter to Queen Elizabeth II last Friday complaining of attempts to ruin his reputation.

L Local political leaders said they had known of Mr. Hamilton.

"This man was investigated over a long period of time and had done nothing," Labor's shadow Scottish secretary, George Robertson, told the BBC. "But you can't legislate for every eventuality."

Barry Lacol, a 24-year-old Dunblane native, said some parents tried to keep their children away from Mr. Hamilton.

"He was in a rifle club, and he used to put a can of Coke at the end of the range and fire at it and get all excited," Mr. Lacol $$ added.

Police investigators said the gunman "knew what he was doing" as he barged into the school and entered the gym through a locker room.

"I think it would be fair to say that those who saw him in the corridor knew exactly what his intentions were, and they were given no chance to try and prevent him," said Police Superintendent Louis Munn of Strathclyde.

The superintendent said it was "sheer luck" that one child escaped without being wounded.

As news of the killings spread, political leaders reacted. British // Prime Minister John Major said he was "shocked and horrified" by the massacre. Labor leader Tony Blair said the killings "devastated" the nation."

The citizens of the village appeared to take comfort from the words of support. The local school will be closed for the rest of the week as the village tries to absorb the tragedy.

Mr. McIntosh recalled meeting with the dead children just a few weeks ago in a school assembly. He began to cry as he spoke of them.

"We have to prepare for funerals," he said.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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