The day had begun in sunshine. The streets were filling up with families enjoying half-term, and Whitehaven was bright with the promise of summer. Then the first shots rang out. Within a few hours, 12 people lay dead, and this quiet Georgian port had joined the ranks of Dunblane, Hungerford and Omagh as geographic shorthand for mass murder.
In the three-and-a-half hours from 10.35am, local taxi driver Derrick Bird, 52, was to unleash one of the most ferocious and perplexing killing sprees in modern domestic criminal history.
By the time police recovered his body 20 miles away in the idyllic beauty spot of Boot in Eskdale, the death toll had reached at least a dozen. His victims included several pensioners out shopping, most of them shot in the face or head at point-blank range either with a shotgun or a high-powered telescopic rifle. A further 25 perople were wounded. Three of them were in a critical condition last night while five others were described as being in a serious condition.
During the hunt for the killer, tens of thousands of people living and holidaying around the picturesque western fringes of the Lake District were ordered to stay indoors as Bird switched cars and opened fire in a series of small villages and country lanes with a randomness and ferocity that has left investigators puzzled. At the height of the manhunt the nuclear power station at Sellafield was locked down for the first time in its history, while Cumbria police deployed all their armed teams along with helicopters and dozens of vehicles to give chase.
David Cameron, making his first appearance at Prime Minister's Questions, told MPs of the tragedy while the Queen added her condolences as the sense of shock and disbelief spread in communities still recovering from the devastating effects of flooding last year and a fatal school coach crash only last month.
Sir Ian Blair, the former Met Police commissioner, saidat the Hay Festival: "We have the most draconian anti-gun laws in the world... I don't think we can make the laws any tighter."
Even last night, given the wide geographical area covered by the killer, police could not be sure that the final death toll was known and urged anyone who had been unable to get in touch with a friend or relative to contact them.
The catalyst for the slaughter remains unclear but there were suggestions yesterday that one factor was a family row over arrangements for Bird's mother's will. His twin brother, David, was, according to locals, the first person shot dead – in Frizington – as the taxi driver began his rampage.
A solicitor from the KJ Commons law practice dealing with the will arrangements was reported to have been another of the people shot dead early on in Bird's killing spree. He had previously arranged an appointment with the solitcitor for yesterday. The identity of the solicitor remained unconfirmed last night but police cordoned off the home of solicitor Kevin Commons as part of their investigation and the firm is to make a statement this morning.
Forensic experts were at work at 30 crime scenes, including Duke Street in Whitehaven, where shots rang out at around 10.35am. The first confirmed victim was a friend and fellow driver of Bird's, named locally as Darren Rewcastle. He was apparently shot in connection with an argument which broke out on the taxi rank where they both worked some time the previous evening. Steven Pater, one of the drivers who knew the killer, said Bird had been upset over several months about the way he saw some cars taking fares away from him. There were also claims he was infuriated at being called a "mummy's boy".
Two more taxi driver victims were gunned down in quick succession – one died instantly, the other was seriously injured – before witnesses saw Bird driving off in his silver Citroen Picasso and speeding away through the one-way system with his windscreen smashed and a large shotgun hanging out of the side window.
Brian Edwards, 67, a joiner, watched as Bird went past brandishing one of his weapons. "I heard a bang and thought at first it might be the cannon that they fire at the docks – but it was too early. There were four shots and I looked round to see the taxi driver lying on the pavement," he said.
Four miles away at Egremont, people were going about their business when Bird's car arrived. Police and local radio had been urging everyone to stay indoors but the message had yet to filter through. One man was killed on Egremont Bridge while a second victim was left for dead a few hundred yards away. Witness Gary Toomey, 38, said: "I saw a car screeching off and a man saying 'Help me'. He was bleeding heavily from the side of his face. He said he dived out of the way of the shot and the man in the car pointed the gun down and shot him again in the back from about six feet away as he lay on the floor."
Barrie Moss was cycling home near Thornhill outside Egremont when he heard a taxi hoot its horn. He said he thought some youths had run away without paying the fare. But as he and another man looked more closely he realised that a woman, apparently out shopping, had been shot just yards away from him.
"I got to the door [of the car] and there was a short, dumpy guy looking up the hill. He turned around and stared at me and just had this absolutely huge sniper rifle. It was almost touching the floor, massive scope and everything. I looked at him and you just do a double take – 'What is this? Is it just a toy to scare kids?'"
Mr Moss tried to help the female victim. "He [Bird] must have seen her, stopped, got out and shot her point blank in the back of the head. I don't think anybody could have done anything. There were bits of her that were supposed to be inside, outside."
Two more were confirmed to have died at nearby Seascale, a small coastal village popular with tourists. Others were badly injured. Local GP Barrie Walker pronounced the victims dead. One of them was a friend, who was named locally as Jane Robinson, 66, who lived with her twin sister Barrie nearby.
The other Seascale victim was believed to be Michael Pike, a grandfather of three, who was shot as he cycled down the road. "I had never seen shotgun injuries like this, and people lying on pavements in a quiet village, blood flowing on streets," the stunned doctor said.
Other victims were seen in a Range Rover while one man reported three bodies in one street alone. At Gosforth on the main coast road, local farmer Garry Purdham, brother of England rugby player Rob and a father of two young children, was trimming hedges in a field with his uncle at around 11.30am when Bird pulled up, rolled down his window and shot him.
Other victims of the cab killer were named unofficially last night as Susan Hughes, 57, of Egremont, Kenneth Fishburn, in his 70s, of Egremont, and James and Jennifer Jackson, a couple in their 60s living in Wilton. At some point on his short journey down the coast Bird had switched cars and was now driving a black Vauxhall Astra. As he headed inland towards Eskdale the car crashed. A family of walkers came to his aid but miraculously he did not open fire.
More than 100 people were by now cowering locked up in two pubs in the village of Boot at the end of the valley, many of them suffering gunshot wounds. Hundreds more were being kept safe inside station buildings at the Ravenglass and Eskdale Steam Railway which, until then, had been enjoying one of its busiest days of the year.
Proceeding on foot, Bird opened fire at a crowded campsite, seriously injuring one person. But by now either he had nowhere to run or he was out of ammunition. Police swarmed to the end of the valley in helicopters and dozens of cars were parked up along the narrow lanes as officers fanned out to search the surrounding countryside. Around 1.40pm a single gunshot was heard. Twenty minutes later police confirmed a body had been found. Derrick Bird was dead. The manhunt was over but the investigation was beginning.
One of Cumbria's most senior policemen said last night that the reasons why Bird decided to pack his guns and ammunition and to start shooting people may never be known.
Deputy chief constable Stuart Hyde said the investigation will take a throrough look at all the possible factors: "We need to piece that together and that involves understanding what he has been through, his family circumstances, a whole range of things before we can make judgements.
"And it may well be that we never actually find that out. But hopefully by speaking to people, looking at his history we will be able to figure out what caused this."
Other victims of the cab killer were named unofficially last night as Susan Hughes, 57, of Egremont, Kenneth Fishburn, in his 70s, of Egremont.
It is known that Bird had previous contact with police as the picture released yesterday was one from police files but they refused to divulge if he had a criminal record.
The investigation involves more than 30 forensic officers from Cumbria Police and a dozen borrowed from other forces, more than 30 family liason officers, more than 100 detectives and "a raft" of uniformed officers.
ITV decided in the wake of the slaughter to postpone its much trailed blockbuster episode due to be broadcast last night featuring a gun seige in which two characters are killed.A repeat of Harry Hill's TV Burp was shown instead.
Within hours of the shootings more than 10,000 people had joined the Facebook group RIP To the Victims of Derrick Bird as a means of showing solidarity with the victyims and their families.
The gunman: Did attack turn him into a killer?
Friends and neighbours of Derrick Bird were last night puzzling over what compelled an outwardly normal man who drank in the local pub and was polite and friendly to those in his tight-knit community to unleash one of Britain’s most deadly killing sprees.
The 52-year old divorced father with grown-up sons had, according to neighbours, become a grandfather for the first time two weeks ago. He spent the last 23 years working as an independent taxi driver and was a well-known and popular figure on Whitehaven’s Duke Street rank – the scene of the first recorded shooting – where he was known as “Birdie” and used to join the other cabbies chatting and smoking. Drivers there yesterday said there had been no long-running disputes but that on Tuesday night a row erupted suddenly between Bird and at least one of his victims, a close friend and fellow driver, and he had driven off apparently in a rage. Police refused to be drawn on whether the first of the murders may have been targeted.
His friend Peter Leder said he had told him the previous evening: “You won’t see me again” – a statement he thought bizarrely out of character for a man who was outgoing and positive.
In 2007 four men beat Bird and left him unconscious with two broken teeth, when they jumped out of his cab and refused to pay their fare. One admitted actual bodily harm and Bird was said to have become “nervous and anxious”. He separated from his partner and childhood sweetheart, a local woman, Linda Mills, several years ago and was close to his elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home. She is being cared for by relatives.
Since the attack he had put on weight and a relative of his former partner said he was “moody” and “didn’t have much in the way of self-esteem”.
He is thought to have two brothers living in West Cumbria. Though friends said he had guns – common enough in the rural Lake District – police would not reveal how he came to be in possession of the two weapons, one a shotgun, used in the killings.
Mr Leder said Bird enjoyed scuba diving, practising in the local pool, and he holidayed abroad each year with friends, recently visiting Thailand, Sweden and Russia. He was an outdoors enthusiast who liked walking and shooting rabbits on the Cumbrian fells around his home. Others described him as a motor enthusiast who followed speedway, liked powerful motorbikes and was regularly seen tinkering with his car engine. Neighbours at his scruffy mid-terrace pebble-dash home where he lived alone in Rowrah, a small village five miles outside Whitehaven, spoke of a man with regular and unthreatening habits.
Whitehaven Councillor John Kane, who knew him, said it remained a mystery as to what had pushed Bird over the edge. "I would describe him as a very placid man. Very quiet and someone who kept himself to himself. I was not aware that he was a gun owner. He was a very quiet person.” He added: “I don’t believe and you hear the rumours going round that it was anything to do with any criminal activities. It wasn’t to do with drugs. I honestly believe he has just gone over the edge. Something has upset him and he just can’t handle it.” Michelle Haigh, landlady of The Hound Inn in Frizington where he was a regular described him as a "normal bloke". She too was perplexed as to what might have gone so catastrophically wrong. “He was a nice guy, nothing out of the ordinary. He would come into the pub, have a couple of pints, have a chat with his friend and go home,” she said.
Three hours of bloodshed...
Derrick Bird's home town. Reports of shots fired.
10.30am Two fellow taxi-drivers are shot dead and another injured after Bird pulls up at the rank in Duke Street. One of those killed is Darren Rewcastle, in his thirties.
11am Two shot dead, one a woman carrying shopping, the other a man on a bridge. Police receive reports of gunfire.
11am Nuclear power plant locked down.
Two people shot dead: 66-year-old Jane Robinson, and cyclist Michael Pike. At least one other, named as pub landlord Harry Berger, is injured. Dr Barrie Walker, a GP in the village, personally certifies two dead – both had suffered shotgun wounds.
11.30am Farmer's son and local rugby player Garry Purdham, brother of the Harlequins rugby league captain and England player Rob Purdham, is shot dead at point-blank range while working in a field near the village. Police warn the public and release Bird's name, photo and licence plate number.
Bird abandons his badly damaged car – as he does so, a family approach to try to help him – and escapes on foot. He shoots someone at the Hollins Farm campsite near Eskdale, injuring them.
1.40pm Bird's body found in woods, where police recovered a gun.
Carlisle and Whitehaven
"Major incident" declared at West Cumberland Hospital, Whitehaven. Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle is put on full incident stand-by.Reuse content