Slaughter in 'valley of the deepest shadow'

Tasmania Masacre: Lone killer's carnage in quiet tourist town stuns whole nation, writes Robert Milliken
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The most violent day in Tasmania's history since colonial times began without warning just after 1.30pm yesterday. Like most Sundays, it was the busiest day of the week at Port Arthur, which was once a penal settlement and is now the island's leading tourist attraction.

There was nothing immediately remarkable about the young man who arrived in a Volkswagen with a surf board tied to the roof. Witnesses said he had blond hair and a "surfy appearance". But the tennis-racket case he was carrying concealed a rifle and soon the area was to become a slaughterhouse as he turned the gun on all those around him.

The bloodshed began when he walked into a restaurant near the ruins of the 19th-century prison and started firing at local people working there. Then he walked to the car park and its toll gates, firing at tourists arriving in buses and cars. From there he went to the nearby Fox and Hounds Hotel, where he shot more people.

He then took three people hostage and fled to a tourist lodge three miles away. After a 16-hour siege, he was arrested. The fate of the hostages was not known last night. The number of people shot dead was initially put at 32, but it is thought the final toll could be higher.

A witness who saw the start of the massacre said: "He said 'There are a lot of WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) around today. There aren't many Japs, are there?' Then he started muttering to himself, walked inside and started firing."

Karen Jones, a visitor from Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, said: "He went to the toll gates and shot at everyone who was coming in." Phillip Millburn, from Hobart, said: "He would line people up before shooting them. It was something smaller than a .303 rifle, and it was meant to kill." Sue Hobbs, an employee at the Port Arthur Tourist Centre, said: "It's shocked us. Many of the 100 people employed here have come in to help even if they were rostered off. It's a quiet community. You can imagine how this has rocked everyone. Our staff are remaining very calm. It's unbelievable to see how people have put their own fears and concerns aside to help the general public."

The Right Reverend Phillip Newell, the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, said: "The police, the chaplains, the doctors and nurses have given a tremendous amount. The rest of the community is expressing its grief and love. They're passing through the valley of the deepest shadow."

John Johnson, Tasmania's Police Commissioner, said: "I don't know why he's done this."

More than 200 police converged on Port Arthur and set up roadblocks around the town and the Seascape Guest House, where the gunman went to ground with his hostages.

Emergency services were stretched to the limit as every available helicopter flew in to shuttle the injured to hospital in Hobart, where beds were vacated for all but critical cases.

John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, said he was "shocked and appalled" at the murder of innocent people. Kim Beazley, Leader of the Opposition, said: "This is a terrible tragedy, a shocking waste."

The Queen, who was kept in touch with events by the Tasmanian authorities, sent a message of sympathy. "I was deeply shocked to learn of the devastating tragedy at Port Arthur," she said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with you all," the message concluded. John Major also joined the condolences in a message to Mr Howard.

Tony Rundle, the Premier of Tasmania, said: "All Tasmanians and all Australians will be sick at heart at this dreadful massacre. We express sympathy to the bereaved and pray for those in hospital fighting to survive. This is something beyond the comprehension of Tasmanians."

Tasmania is normally one of Australia's most peaceful places, where people flock to escape the stresses of city life in mainland Australia and to find solace in the wilderness.

Its colonial history, however, was far from peaceful. Port Arthur, on the southern end of the Tasman Peninsula, is the site of one of Britain's most infamous penal institutions, which operated from 1830 to 1877. The township was the centre of a vast penal network. More than 12,500 convicts passed through its gates. Just offshore is the Isle of the Dead, named for many of those who died in chains.

The tourists caught in yesterday's massacre were among thousands each year who visit the Port Arthur ruins, considered the most graphic surviving monument of Australia's convict era.

Last night, in the wake of the killings, there were more calls for tighter nationwide gun laws. Other than the island's 19th-century colonial massacres of Aborigines, yesterday's tragedy was easily Australia's worst mass killing of recent times.

In August 1987 a 19-year-old former army cadet shot seven people dead and injured 19 while firing at motorists in Hoddle Street, Melbourne. Four months later, a 22-year-old law student shot eight workers dead in a Melbourne office building, then jumped to his death.

In August 1991, a 33-year-old taxi-driver armed with an assault rifle killed seven shoppers in a Sydney shopping mall then shot himself dead.

Australians were horrified by yesterday's massacre and its scale. Many had been lulled into a belief that such a massacre could not happen again after demands for tighter gun laws in the wake of the three earlier incidents. But, apart from small changes, the federal and state governments have spent much of the time since then wrangling over details. The most recent talks between federal and state ministers ended inconclusively last November.

Simon Chapman, of the Australian Coalition for Gun Control, said the laws should ban private ownership of semi-automatic rifles and impose tougher guidelines on who could own firearms.

He said state governments in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland were cowering in political fear of the gun lobby "while the whole community waits anxiously for inevitable incidents like this".