Steven Hopper: Life after Dunblane

Ten years after the school killings, one eyewitness tells Mary Braid there was no choice but to move on
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While Steven Hopper remembers the massacre at Dunblane primary school, snow begins to fall. Snow in March; it was about the only notable feature on that otherwise mundane morning, 10 years ago, as Thomas Hamilton, a disturbed loner, was preparing for mass murder.

Mr Hopper, now a 21-year-old student at Stirling University, was in his final year at Dunblane primary when Hamilton, 43, marched into the school and opened fire on a class of five- and six-year-olds in the gym.

In just three and a half insane and bloody minutes, at about 9.35am on Wednesday 13 March 1996, Hamilton - nursing a grudge after complaints about his running of local boys' clubs - had murdered 16 children and their teacher, Gwen Mayor, and then turned the gun on himself. When the killing was over, the gym was strewn with tiny bullet-ridden bodies. Among them were 12 more children who were injured but survived.

Ten years on, it still seems incredible that such horror was visited upon innocents in such a quiet, beautiful Scottish town. It's only with adult hindsight that Mr Hopper, who still lives in Dunblane, realises how lucky he was. After the slaughter in the gym, it was to Mr Hopper's classroom, 20 yards away, that Hamilton walked and opened fire through the window.

"It was instinctive," recalls Mr Hopper. "We all just hit the deck. A few children were crying but most of us were quiet. I think most were just wondering what would happen if he came into the classroom."

For some reason, Hamilton turned his back on the school's oldest children and returned to pick off the few little ones who had survived in the gym hall or were hiding in a cupboard, where wounded teacher Eileen Harrild was desperately trying to quieten a little boy.

The first indication of unfolding disaster had been an odd popping sound from the gym. Mr Hopper says everyone looked in the direction of the noise with a collective sense of disbelief. "The noise from the gym sounded like shooting but, well, who would have been shooting in a school?" he says.

The class and their teacher were still looking towards the gym when Hamilton emerged. "He came out of a fire exit," says Mr Hopper. "I saw him just very briefly before he pointed the gun at us."

It's the glass that Mr Hopper remembers. As the bullets hit the classroom windows, they shattered, showering the children. As they lay on the floor, Mr Hopper remembers his teacher Kay Gordon calling out to pupils to stay where they were.

As a grown-up, Hopper recognises the cool head many adults showed that day, though many felt guilty there was so little they could do to save the children who died. "Our teacher was distressed, but to her credit she didn't show it," says Mr Hopper.

Many of the children also seem to have remained calm. "It may just be the way I am," says Mr Hopper. "I've never been very emotional. But I wasn't lying there terrified. I was thinking what could I do to get away if he came into the room." When the shooting finally stopped, everyone was instructed to stay in their classrooms until the police arrived. That was when Mr Hopper began to worry about his younger brother and fellow pupil Andrew, eight. Once again, Mr Hopper was lucky. One of the girls in his class lost a sister in the gym but Andrew was safe.

As Steven Hopper waited, hundreds of distraught parents were running through the streets towards the school. By 10am, a police officer came to Mr Hopper's class to collect him. His dad was waiting at the gates and on his way there Steven was reunited with Andrew. "I remember just wanting to know if they had caught the man with the gun, and my dad told me he had shot himself," he says. "At the time I thought that was justice."

Mr Hopper knew Hamilton vaguely. "I attended his football club for a while," he says. "He used to have boys exercising in the gym with their T-shirts off. At the time I didn't think much of it, but looking back ..."

I reported from Dunblane from the day of the massacre for more than a week. I still remember the shock and sadness that hung like a cloud over the town. But Mr Hopper says it just didn't seem that bleak for so long through his young eyes, though he suspects that adults worked hard to protect children and that many of those adults found it harder than the children to accept the horrific events.

Surely he and his classmates must have talked and talked about it when they got back to school. "Actually most of us stopped talking about it shortly after we returned," he says. "At that age, you don't think about it in great depth. We accepted it had happened and there was nothing we could do about that." It helped that the vast majority of pupils never saw the bloodbath or the gunman. "When we went back to school, the gym was cordoned off and we didn't go anywhere near it," says Mr Hopper. "It was knocked down the moment police had finished with it. Counselling was offered and maybe some kids took it, but I didn't. I didn't think it would make any difference to me."

Still there were some signs that trauma was buried. Mr Hopper recalls a service a year later where former Dunblane primary pupils wept. "Some people were upset," he says, though he insists they were a minority.

It suits some to believe that the people of Dunblane remain frozen at 9.35am on 13 March 1996, forever defined by those three and a half minutes of sickening violence. But Mr Hopper insists that while some people have found it hard to move on, the majority have had to. There was simply no other option.

In the weeks after the massacre, flowers and soft toys poured into the town. The world seemed to want to share the town's pain. But Mr Hopper's attitude is that no one except the families of the murdered children and their teacher can feel their agony. He mentions Mick North, whose only daughter Sophie, five, died in the gym. Mr North's wife had died of cancer two years before and he remains tortured that he did not keep his promise to his dying wife to keep Sophie safe. Mr Hopper seems to feel it is distasteful for anyone to muscle in on such grief.

Mr Hopper reckons he's an unemotional guy, but 10 years on the tragedy can still creep up and take him by surprise. "When I think about how young the victims were I get upset. It's mainly anger. They didn't get their chance." On that terrible snowy morning, all that the children might have been was simply and viciously snuffed out.

Steven Hopper appears on Five's 'Dunblane: A Decade On' this Wednesday at 8pm