Happy children cut down in minutes

The Dunblane tragedy: 'A man came through, he took a couple of steps. I was going to ask what he wanted. He started to shoot at me' - Eileen Harrild, teacher

James Cusick
Wednesday 29 May 1996 23:02

Thomas Hamilton prepared for the massacre at Dunblane primary school with an obsessive precision. According to the stark, clinical details presented yesterday on the first day of the inquiry before Lord Cullen, in Stirling, Hamilton arrived at the school with enough ammunition and weapons to wipe out the entire school. He may also have attempted to cut off the school's telephone system, isolating it from the outside world and possible help.

A police firearms expert, Malcolm Chisholm, described to the inquiry the arsenal which Hamilton carried into the school gymnasium to murder 16 children and their teacher on 13 March.

Inside a camera bag, on four holsters around his body and in two body pouches, Hamilton carried four guns and 743 rounds of ammunition. There were two Smith and Wesson revolvers and two high-powered Browning pistols. He was dressed in black, with a dark hat, and wore spectacles. Specialist muffs covered his ears to deaden the noise of his weapons. His preparation was clinical and fastidious.

Seven times during the carnage Hamilton loaded and reloaded one of the Browning pistols. It took 9mm parabellumcartridges.

The cartridges are sold without any indication on them to show top or bottom. Hamilton had put his own mark on them to speed up loading. He had also loaded the cartridges in a precise sequence, using four different kinds of bullets.

Asked by the Lord Advocate, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, whether he had ever come across "such a loading mixture" of bullets, Mr Chisholm, a scenes- of-crime officer with Tayside Police, and who previously served in Strathclyde Police for 30 years, said: "I have never encountered this in all my years."

Beginning at 9.37am, Hamilton fired a total of 105 shots. From police tests, it has been estimated that the Browning would take, if continuously fired, 50.4 seconds to shoot 105 rounds.

When Hamilton started to fire inside the gymnasium, Eileen Harrild, Dunblane's part-time physical education teacher, was the first to face directly the strange man dressed in black. Only minutes before, she had been laying out equipment across the floor - benches, ropes, mats. Outside the door of the hall, 27 young children dressed in their gym kit were jumping up and down with excitement.

There was no emotion in Mrs Harrild's voice as she calmly told the inquiry: "The wee ones were always excited. I told them to stand, spaced out throughout the gym. With them was their teacher, Gwen Mayor. She was to be relieved in a few minutes due to a meeting with the headmaster."

Mrs Mayor's diary was laid out on a bench. A child's spectacles were neatly placed beside them. Mary Blake, Dunblane's teaching assistant, was with the group.

Mrs Harrild said she became aware of the gym doors opening. "A man came through. He took a couple of steps. I was going to ask what he wanted. He started to shoot at me." She raised her arms and Hamilton began to shoot indiscriminately. Mrs Harrild was shot in the arms and chest. She said she had been in shock and could not comprehend what was happening. She had stumbled towards the open store area.

Hamilton's fire was rapid, continuous. He did not stop. As she lay in the store area she was aware that injured children and Mrs Blake, also shot, had followed her there.

In the hall of the inquiry, which is expected to last six to eight weeks, the monitors showed maps of the school and its interior. Diagrams of the gymnasium area revealed that Hamilton had taken up three different positions while he fired at the children. He had spread his fire when he first came into the hall. Then he walked to the middle and fired more rounds. He walked to the end of the hall, turned and began firing back down it.

David Scott, one of Dunblane's art teachers, was looking down from his classroom into the gymnasium. He saw Hamilton shooting. A young pupil who had been sent out to find a pair of scissors also looked in. Hamilton saw him and fired out through the window. The boy was hit by flying glass.

At the top end of the hall Hamilton pushed open the fire doors and stood looking at the nearby Portacabin classrooms and the school's main building. He was looking directly at the cloakroom and library.

One of the first detectives to arrive at the scene, Detective Chief Superintendent John Ogg, described the series of near misses that could have increased the number of those murdered at the school.

A teacher, walking along the lower corridor of the main building, was grazed in the head by a bullet as Hamilton, now outside the gym, fired. He fired again at the classroom belonging to the primary seven class taught by Kay Gordon. She had noticed Hamilton in the gym and ordered her class to get down on the floor. Det Ch Supt Ogg described her decision as "fortunate".

Nine bullets were fired at the Portacabin classroom of primary seven. Some bullets passed straight through the walls of the room. Det Ch Supt Ogg said: "One of the bullets went through the back of a chair."

Hamilton returned to the gymnasium. He fired again down the hall. But then he stopped. He switched the Browning into another hand and took out one of the two Smith and Wesson revolvers.

About five seconds passed, according to the teacher looking down into the hall. Hamilton put the barrel into his mouth and fired, blowing a hole through the top of his head. It blew him off his feet, on to the wall of the hall, and he fell on his back.

In front of him, where only minutes earlier there had been 27 eager, happy five- and six-year-olds and three adults ready to teach them, there were 17 murdered bodies and a class of injured and terrified survivors.

The inquiry continues.

Bryan Appleyard, page 19

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