The day a nation fell silent

As the Queen mourns with Dunblane, a survivor takes first steps to recovery
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The Independent Online
MARY BRAID

So perfect was the silence that everyone heard the 09.30am time check on the policeman's pocket radio. The young officer removed his cap and stared down hard at his boots. All around him people stood gazing at the deep carpet of flowers which now links the two entrances to Dunblane Primary School.

Across the river, the Cathedral's distant chimes also heralded the minute's silence for the 16 murdered children of Primary One and their teacher. A crowd had gathered in the churchyard where bouquets and teddies are now also appearing along the wall.

Throughout the town, cars stopped and people hurried inside to be with their families. A few stood statue-still in the street. In their high nests on the hill behind the church only the rooks broke the soundlessness.

It was a raw, miserable day. At 10am, half an hour before what should have been the Mother's Day service, the cathedral was already packed. But despite the cold and drizzle, hundreds who could not get inside stood stoically among the ancient tombstones..

Neither did the cold deter the 300 people who gathered to meet the Queen and the Princess Royal when they paid their respects that afternoon. Both were clearly upset after meeting children, teachers and emergency service staff.

The Queen and Princess Anne also met the injured. At Stirling Royal Infirmary. These included Ben Vallance, recovering from an arm injury. His classmate, Robert Purvis, whose elbow was shattered when Hamilton opened fire, asked about her corgis.

It was a day which focused on the damage done to Dunblane's young survivors. Among the last into the cathedral service, attended by some of the bereaved, was a line of little boys and girls from the cathedral Sunday school, many of whom knew those who died.

It is the tradition in Scotland's principal presbyterian church for Sunday school children to be present at the beginning of the main service. The Rev Colin McIntosh addressed the little ones first.

Many, he said, would be feeling sad, confused and frightened. They would not understand deaths which seemed so "unfair and wrong" but neither did their parents.

As every child and adult inside and outside the cathedral joined hands, Rev McIntosh read the names of all 16 children.

In Dunblane pain and anguish have become all pervading constants. But every so often bewildering disbelief hits home again with its original impact, scraping the heart raw. This was such a moment. The role call set off an ocean of tears surprising those who believed they had wept themselves dry.

The dignified, simple service lasted over an hour. The Scots are a reticent race, not given to gushy displays of emotion. But never were hymns sung with such feeling. When the Tannoy occasionally failed, the voices in the churchyard rang out clear and strong.

Occasionally, happy singing from the Sunday school hall drifted out to mingle with the adults' solemn verses. In the unrelenting gloom their childish voices harboured hope.

Rev McIntosh said neither the strongest words nor the strongest faith could bypass the pain of loss or protect people from the awful sense that with these deaths, something of their own life had lost its meaning. "When parents die... they take with them a large portion of the past, but when children die they take away the future as well," he said.

In the congregation at Dunblane's small Catholic Churchwas the mother of Joanna Ross, who will be buried at a nearby church today with her best friend, Emma Crozier.

As communities all over the country observed the one-minute silence in a moving display of national despair, Rev McIntosh said he had never seen such "an outpouring of speechless, silent love".

But he asked that the world's press leave Dunblane now to grieve. Many journalists, profoundly affected by all they have seen and heard, would wish to comply. Seldom has there been a sadder, more wretched story.

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