Australia pays silent tribute to gun victims

Tasmania massacre: Nation halts to mourn 35 shot dead
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The Independent Online
Tasmania stood still yesterday. The rest of Australia followed suit. At 10.30am, people from Queensland to Canberra, on farms and stock exchange floors, stopped and bowed their heads for one minute to honour the 35 people who died in the Port Arthur massacre last Sunday.

Outside St David's Anglican cathedral in Hobart men wept, women held each other for comfort, children clutched bunches of flowers. Police officers and soldiers looked bewildered at the enormity of the horror that has shaken the country. They had erected stands to accommodate 2,000 people outside the cathedral but thousands more came and sat in silence, forming a sea of faces along the narrow street as the bells of St David's tolled and a lone piper played while the grieving families of the victims arrived for the memorial service.

Inside the fine, stone cathedral where the Queen worshipped on her first visit to Australia in 1954, another 1,000 people, including the country's political leaders, gathered. From the pulpit, Sir William Deane, the governor- general, read a message from the Queen, offering prayers and expressing the same shock and sorrow that she felt just two months ago over the massacre at Dunblane, Scotland.

The Rt Rev Phillip Newell, the Bishop of Tasmania, could have been speaking both for Dunblane and for Port Arthur when he said: "The suddenness, the senselessness of the assault and the scope of the carnage has immersed us in a sorrow that we have never known before."

Tony Rundle, the premier of Tasmania said: "No-one in our community goes untouched by this wickedness. The pain is etched in every face, in every anguished voice, in every grieving tear."

There were readings by Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist followers. None of the speakers even tried to answer the hardest questions of all, and the ones that will stay with Tasmanians for ever: How? Why? But, in this conservative, closely-knit community, where emotions are rarely displayed, the collective outpouring of grief was a moving experience.

Before yesterday's service, Australia's three federal political leaders flew by helicopter to the massacre scene at Port Arthur, 60 miles south of Hobart. John Howard, the Prime Minister, Kim Beazley, the Labor opposition leader, and Cheryl Kernot, leader of the Australian Democrats, laid a wreath together on the steps of the Broad Arrow cafe, where the gunman shot dead 20 of his victims as they sat at tables.

The cafe takes its name from the emblem printed on the shirts of the 12,500 convicts who passed through Port Arthur's prison gates for almost 50 years until 1877. Once a happy rest spot for tourists as they explored the prison's ruins, the cafe is now closed, never to be re-opened. It is likely to be demolished and replaced by a memorial stone.

John Edwards, a carpenter at the tourist centre, finished painting the cafe's windows so that passers-by could no longer glimpse the blood-stained legacy of the charnel house that it became last Sunday afternoon.

I walked down a tree-lined road on which a teddy bear and three bunches of flowers marked the spot where one of Mr Edwards' colleagues, Nanette Mikac, and her daughters Alannah, six, and Madeline, three, were shot dead at point-blank range. Mrs Mikac hosted night-time "ghost tours" of the ruins. Walter, her husband, was playing golf nearby when his family were murdered.

Like most staff at Port Arthur, Mr Edwards knew Martin Bryant, the 28 year-old former local resident who is accused of the massacre. "We always had an eerie feeling about him," he said.

The alleged gunman is under police guard at the Royal Hobart Hospital where security was stepped up after the switchboard reported an increasing number of phone calls threatening him. Many anonymous callers wanted to know why Bryant was receiving treatment at the Royal Hobart; Lindsay Pyne, chief executive officer, said Bryant was too ill to be transferred to a prison hospital. At least 20 employees, he said, were too distressed to turn up for work.

At the cafe, small groups of people arrived to lay flowers on the steps. The old prisoners' parade ground, now a lawn, was dusted with autumn leaves. The harbour next to it glistened. Mr Edwards had worked into the early hours of Monday evacuating the 19 people injured in the shooting spree. "I feel helpless now," he said. "Helpless."

Letters, page 16

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