'Words cannot describe the feelings of all the parents. Some are in a d readful state'

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The Independent Online


Voice breaking, Gerry McDermott, a school-board member, was struggling, like everyone else in Dunblane yesterday, to find the right words. He tried the usual cliches - nightmare, shock, devastation. He paused, and then eventually said: "My neighbour's daughter was killed this morning. My own children played with Emma as recently as yesterday.

"No one here can believe what has happened. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been affected. It has had an appalling affect.

His son Gerry, five, was in the class below the children who died. Mr McDermott said that he had gone to the school shortly after the shooting after being called by a friend. Police, he said, had done their best to tell parents as quickly as possible whether their children were alive, injured or had died. But the wait in a local hotel must have been agonising.

"Words cannot describe the feeling of all the parents involved. Some are in a dreadful state." Emma's mother, he said, was inconsolable.

Like the "middle England" description given to Hungerford after the massacre there almost a decade ago, Dunblane is classically middle Scotland.

The quiet, largely middle-class, small town is an enclosed community which accepts easily the label of being a comfortable, mostly Conservative, commuter community.

In the streets yesterday there were plenty of tears, and in houses all over the town families gathered round television sets waiting for the next news bulletin, struggling like Gerry McDermott to take in the enormity of the atrocity.

The faces of frantic parents had spelt out the horror as they ran to Dunblane School - not knowing if their children were dead or alive. Less than an hour before, they had kissed their youngsters goodbye at the school gates.

It had been just like any other day until news reports started filtering through of a shooting. In disbelief they strained to hear the details or knocked on neighbours' doors - not wanting to believe their ears.

Dunblane is an affluent, solid town. "If you could think of a place where this would be less likely to happen, it would be Dunblane," said one woman who lives near the school. "You read about these things in the paper but never here, never Dunblane."

Brian Owen spent more than two hours at the school collecting his son Stuart who was in the nursery.

As he left with his Stuart and his daughter Catrina, who had been off school, he said: "You never think it is going to happen to you. Parents are very upset now and very concerned. All our thoughts are with the parents whose children have been killed or injured. I am lucky because my children are OK."

Parents arrived at the school and gave police their names, which were being matched up with children's names. Those whose children had been killed were taken to one side.

Mr Owen, warden of Scottish Churches House in Dunblane, added: "All of us are in shock and hugging each other and holding each other's hands and trying to support each other. Until you have got your own child back you are not sure."

When asked about the impact the tragedy would have on the small town, he said: "Dunblane is a small community and everybody knows everybody else. I think the whole community will pull together, it is that kind of place."

Outside the school, which was cordoned off all day yesterday, Edith and Ron Lloyd, both in their seventies, said that their daughter Judith Ballance was devastated by events. She runs a play school in the town and many of the dead children were former charges. "She's in a state of shock," Mr Lloyd said.

He added that Mrs Ballance was trying to explain to her seven-year-old daughter, a pupil at the school, exactly what had happened. Like the 700 other children who attend the primary, Mrs Ballance's daughter had been unaware of the horrific shooting. "The children were protected by teachers from what had happened," said Mr Lloyd. "They were just allowed home this afternoon.

"Our granddaughter doesn't know exactly what has happened. Her mum has just said that an ill man came to the school and did harm to the children, and that she won't be seeing some of them again. She's very, very quiet at the moment. She just nodded her head.

"It's so awful. The funerals will be terrible. Those 16 little coffins."

The town was full of horrific tales. Dunblane Primary, a two-storey building surrounded by pre-fabricated huts, was eerily quiet yesterday afternoon, but bullet holes could be seen in the windows of the gymnasium at the centre of the school where the killings took place.

Many of those whose houses back on to the school grounds were completely unaware that the shootings had taken place until they heard the wail of police sirens and helicopters overhead.

Joan Kitney, a pensioner, said: "Although I live next to the school, I found out when my daughter rang me from Germany. She had already heard it on the news."

In the Westlands Hotel, where parents had gathered earlier to hear if their children were among the dead and injured, the regulars spoke in whispers. A group talked about one mother they had just seen on television. "She was distraught," said one woman. "It's absolutely unbelievable".

Her friend said he had heard it on the radio news at work and had immediately jumped in his car to drive back to Dunblane. When he arrived police road- blocks were already operating. "Even when I heard it on the radio, I just could not relate it to Dunblane," he said. "As everyone will tell you, nothing ever happens here."

Dunblane, if you lived in inner cities of Glasgow or Edinburgh, was regarded as a haven. Its town-centre tennis club and golf club offered signs of tranquillity and confidence in an oasis of Tory support inside the Secretary of State for Scotland's constituency. But while Hungerford has graduually been counselled back to normality and had to accept a new identity, the Scottish community is still in deep shock from the trauma of yesterday.