Massacre in Class P1

It took three minutes for a gunman to kill 16 children and their teacher. And leave a community shattered
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The Independent Online

Chief Reporter

Less than an hour before, their parents were asking if they had cleaned their teeth, telling them to fasten their shoes properly and checking they had packed their gym kit.

It would have been a scene played out in hundreds of thousands of homes. In Dunblane yesterday it was to end in a bloody spectacle which left a small Scottish town bereft and desolate and the rest of the nation deeply shocked.

Only one child on these smiling rows from Class P1 is thought to have been spared the agony of a bullet from Thomas Hamilton's guns. Sixteen of the rest, along with their teacher, Gwenne Mayor, 45, lay dead last night while five fought for their lives and six others recovered in hospitals near their school, Dunblane Primary. Henceforth, that will be a name synonymous with mass murder in a way that only Hungerford had been before.

Hamilton, a 43-year-old known to the police, strode into the school yesterday morning shortly after assembly holding four guns, and unleashed wave after wave of bullets into the children and their teacher, before turning one of his guns on himself.

Dunblane Primary, which will remain closed for the rest of the week, was still echoing to the sound of Hamilton's fury when a despairing call was made to the police. Chief Constable William Wilson of the Central Scotland force repeated details of that call with a quivering voice yesterday. He quoted the caller as saying simply: "A man with a gun is running amok in Dunblane Primary School."

That man was Hamilton, a man removed as a Scout leader for "unsuitable behaviour" yet allowed to set up his own boys' clubs, a man who plastered his home with pictures of young boys. And a man whose home, according to neighbours, was raided by police two years ago.

Harbouring a grudge over his ejection from the Scouts in 1974, Hamilton appears to have chosen maximum violence to make a point.

Steven Hopper, an 11-year-old survivor, said: "It was right next to my classroom. He seemed to come out of the gymnasium and he was just firing at something. He was coming towards me, so I just dived under my desk when he . . . fired at us. 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."

The deed was over almost as soon as it had begun. "It could have taken no more than two or three minutes," the Chief Constable said.

The scene that greeted ambulance staff was beyond belief. Even those who had cleared up after the Lockerbie air disaster were reduced to tears.

John McEwan, 49, divisional manager of Forth Valley ambulance service and the incident officer at Lockerbie, said he had to "force himself" not to kick Hamilton's body.

"It was like a scene from a medieval hell torture chamber," he said. "I saw the gunman lying there with his head blown off and a handgun by his side. For the first time in my life I had this overwhelming desire to mutilate the corpse.

"The scene inside the gym was utterly unbelievable. There were literally piles of dead bodies. Blood was spattered all over the floor and walls and there were bullet holes everywhere.

"He must have chased the pupils all over the place shooting until they fell. The teacher must have died a hero trying to protect the children. Most had appalling head wounds."

Outside, desperate, hysterical parents arrived to await news of their children. The pain was unavoidable, the grief instant.

"It was absolute chaos," said Vhairi Gardner, 25, who queued with other mothers to find out if her daughter Emma, six, was among the dead.

"I was told to go there and I had to give my name to police and then wait for quite a while as they went looking to see if Emma was alive. It's shocking to think what has happened, but my daughter is okay."

Last night, the quiet, well-to-do community near Stirling was trying desperately to come to terms with its grief. Roads were almost free of traffic; most pavements deserted. One woman, asked about the incident, simply burst into tears.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Hamilton's anger and bitterness had been festering for years. He was known to the local MP, Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and had visited his surgery. "He used to write to me regularly complaining he was being harassed by police. Because the police were concerned he was involved with youngsters . . . But never would I have thought that this man could be capable of doing this," he said.

Labour's Scottish spokesman, George Robertson, had also met him. "I know the man. I have met this man. But you can't lock up everybody that you've got a suspicion about," he said.

Hamilton was quiet and lived alone in a three-bedroomed council flat in Stirling, since his mother died and his father, James, moved out several years ago. "His father couldn't stand it any longer," said William Scott, 75, a friend of the family. "I never got to the bottom of what drove his father away, but Thomas was a mighty queer character."

In Kent Road, where Hamilton lived, neighbours described him as polite, quiet and smart. But there was something else.

"I always found him very creepy because he would look straight through you whenever he talked to you," said Cathleen Kerr, 71.

She described how he invited into his house last summer to see some photographs. "When I got over there, I saw his living room was plastered with photographs of boys from seven upwards. Some had no tops on and some were in swimming trunks in Loch Lomond.

"When I saw the pictures I thought: `Oh . . . what? . . . ,' you know the sort of thing."Hamilton, who described himself as "freelance photographer" on tax returns, had converted one bedroom into a photographic and video studio.

Grace Ogilvie, 62, another neighbour, was once taken indoors by Hamilton to watch a video of young boys in swimming trunks. "He said they were his boys doing exercise. It made me feel very uncomfortable but he seemed very proud of it."

The reason for Hamilton's behaviour may be rooted in his fractious relationships with authority. In his mind he believed he was innocent. And, to prove the point, Buckingham Palace confirmed last night that he had written to the Queen less than a week ago to say he was the subject of a vendetta by the Scout Association.

However, questions about his motives seemed almost irrelevant to the town he has left devastated. Richard Castelow, landlord of the Stirling Arms Hotel half a mile from the school, summed up the mood: "I just cannot accept that anything so evil could have happened in our town. It is truly unbelievable."