By Bill Hewitt
April 01, 1996 12:00 PM

Out of a terrible tragedy come signs of remarkable strength

THE SKIES WERE GRAY AND drizzling as the people of Dunblane, Scotland, began the desolate task of burying their murdered children. At the 200-year-old church at Bridge of Allan, a village two miles from Dunblane, more than 500 mourners gathered to pay final respects to Joanna Ross and Emma Crozier, both 5. They had been baptized together, grew to be best friends—and now they would be buried side by side. As a church clerk explained, “The parents requested that the girls be buried together because they were inseparable in life, and they wanted them to be that way in death.” Throughout the service, the muted sobbing never ceased. It was the eerie, unforgettable sound of hundreds of hearts breaking.

The overwhelming sadness of it all was present everywhere last week in Dunblane, a scenic town of 10,000 settled by Celts almost 1,400 years ago. The 16 children—5-and 6-year-old kindergartners—who, along with their teacher, Gwenne Mayor, 44, were killed on March 13 by a deranged gunman at the Dunblane Primary School, were laid to rest, but nothing could allay the grief and outrage unleashed by one of the worst mass murders in modern British history. (Mercifully, the 12 other children wounded in the attack, three of whom had been in critical condition, are recovering, as are two other wounded school staffers.) For the residents of this comfortable, middle-class community just 40 minutes from Edinburgh and Glasgow, the enormity of the massacre and the image of gunman Thomas Watt Hamilton, 43, bursting into a morning gym class and methodically shooting children and teachers were almost too much to bear. So great was the communal anguish that local police last week directed all the media personnel who had descended on the town—hundreds of newspaper and television reporters from around the world—to leave and let the grieving go on in peace. And the usually fractious press corps obediently did as it was told. “I don’t think it would ever be possible,” said British Prime Minister John Major during a visit, “to put into words precisely what [the people of Dunblane] have had to deal with.”

To help them in the days after the shooting, government officials moved swiftly to provide emotional comfort. A personal social worker was assigned to the family of each of the murdered children. In the days following the tragedy, counselors talked to staff and parents, while another team of eight ministered to the wounded children at the local hospital. For at least the next month, a telephone hotline and social-service center in town will be open to give people an opportunity to discuss the atrocity without pressuring them to do so. “We have to let things happen at the pace that people feel they can cope,” said Dunblane’s mayor, Anne Wallace.

For the 13 young survivors of Mrs. Mayor’s class, known as Primary 1, the trauma was made even worse because it happened as they were conducting their daily routine in a place where they felt completely secure. (In 1994, only 66 people were killed by firearms in all of Britain.) Apparently, Hamilton first shot Gwenne Mayor, who died trying to shield her students. Then he evidently shot the children who were sitting in a play circle. He chased down the rest, shooting many in the head as they ran from him.

“What will stick with me for a long time is the look of terror on the face of a 5-year-old who had a bullet hole through his arm and couldn’t comprehend what had happened,” said John McEwan, who coordinated the ambulance operation at the school and was one of the first to enter the gym. “It was just terrible to see his face.” Only one child from the class, 5-year-old Robbie Hurst, escaped unharmed—by hiding behind the body of his best friend, Kevin Hasell, 5, in an alcove. Teachers later found Robbie lying completely still, in deep shock, his clothes soaked with Kevin’s blood. “Lord only knows how he will ever get over something like this,” said his grandfather Jackie Hurst. “The wee boy said he didn’t know whether the man was going to come round into the alcove and shoot him as well.”

One of the last students to see the gunman alive was Steven Hopper, 11, who was sitting in his classroom near the gym shortly before 9:30 a.m. Steven had just completed his arithmetic exercises when he heard a series of pops. “It was very fast,” he says. “It sounded like thumping with a hammer, someone fixing things or something.” The shooting lasted roughly three minutes. Then, looking out his classroom window, Steven saw a stocky man wearing ear mufflers and carrying a pistol striding toward him across the schoolyard. “I shouted, ‘There’s a man with a gun!’ ” recalls the boy. An instant later bullets smashed the window, showering the youngster and his classmates with glass. A flying shard grazed Steven’s right eyebrow. “A second later and I’d have lost an eye,” he says. “It was pretty scary.” Within minutes, Hamilton took one of the four handguns he had brought with him, put the barrel to his mouth and killed himself.

Like most of the other parents in tight-knit Dunblane, Steven’s father, Sydney, 47, who retired from his government job for health reasons, and mother, Anna, 36, a savings-and-loan employee, learned by telephone that there had been some kind of serious trouble at the school. Rushing there separately, they met up before noon but were forced to wait more than two hours until Steven and his younger brother, Andrew, 8, were turned over to them. So far, the Hoppers have not sought out any of the therapy or social services being offered, in the belief that they can talk openly and frankly with their boys about the killings. But they don’t underestimate the effects of the incident. “This type of grief is extremely difficult for them; Andrew was even joking about the murders,” says Sydney. “It’s just an indication that we, none of us, are capable of coping yet.”

Ultimately the therapists will be relying most on the natural resilience of children to help ease the shock. Some of that quality was on display during Queen Elizabeth’s sympathy visit to Dunblane four days after the massacre. After placing a simple spray of pink, white and yellow flowers with a brief note (“With deepest sympathy—Elizabeth R”) at a shrine outside the school, the Queen, accompanied by Princess Anne, stopped by the Stirling Royal Infirmary to visit wounded children. There, 5-year-old Robert Purves, who had been shot in the arm, greeted Her Majesty wearing a Tasmanian Devil T-shirt and posing a question. “Where are your dogs?” he demanded. The Queen laughed and promptly responded, “I don’t know, but I hope someone is walking them.” Amy Hutchison, 5, her left leg in traction from a bullet wound, said she was disappointed because she couldn’t see what Her Majesty was wearing under her purple topcoat. But the youngster drew smiles all around when she ingenuously asked the Queen where her crown was. The grandmother in Elizabeth, who was clearly touched, seemed to emerge. “I left it at home because I couldn’t bring it on the plane,” she explained gently.

As difficult as healing Dunblane’s wounds will be, making sense of Hamilton’s twisted life and motives may be equally challenging. He was born out of wedlock; his father, Thomas Watt, now 66, left the family when Hamilton was only 18 months old and afterward had virtually no contact with his son. (Learning of the attack, Watt said, “How can I live with knowledge I have brought that monster into the world?”) To cover up the scandal, Thomas was adopted by his maternal grandparents, Jimmy and Kate Hamilton, who for years he was led to believe were his real parents. He was also under the impression that his mother, Agnes Hamilton, 65, who shared the house with them in Stirling, eight miles from Dunblane, was his older sister. Though isolated and awkward, the youngster seemed relatively well-adjusted. He “was a good-looking boy but a loner,” says Anthea Callaghan, 58, a neighbor at the time.

That judgment would soon ring rather generous. As a young man in his 20s, Hamilton became an avid Scout leader, but in 1974 he was dismissed from his post because he had allowed a group of Scouts to get wet and cold during a camping trip. Over the next 20 years or so, Hamilton tried to start up boys’ clubs in several towns in central Scotland. Many parents complained to authorities about his penchant for photographing the boys bare-chested and for fondling and bullying the youths in his charge. Though police investigated Hamilton on several occasions, they evidently concluded that his actions stopped short of any indictable offense. The only time he ever showed a sign of violence was in 1989, when he brandished a handgun at a mother who had accused him of molesting some boys.

In the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre, many people angrily demanded to know how a man with Hamilton’s background could have qualified for a gun permit, which is difficult to obtain in Scotland. But in addition to the fact that he was a member of a gun club, Hamilton had never been charged with a crime, much less convicted. What’s more, many parents considered him a role model for their boys. In 1983, after complaints of sexual impropriety, officials in Dunblane effectively closed down a boys’ club he had started. In response, some 70 parents and 45 boys signed a petition extolling Hamilton. “We are all proud to have Mr. Thomas Hamilton in charge of our boys,” read the petition. “He is a man gifted with excellent qualities of leadership, integrity and absolute devotion to ‘His Lads.’ ”

Nevertheless, Hamilton acquired an unsavory reputation among other townspeople. Lately he had set himself up as a freelance photographer, specializing in portraits of schoolchildren. He regularly visited the offices of the Stirling Observer, a twice-weekly newspaper, to advertise for new members and show off pictures of young boys. “He made your flesh crawl,” says one former staffer at the paper. “He was always rubbing his hands together and walking with a stoop.” Steven Hopper recalls that several years ago he had joined a soccer group organized by Hamilton but had quit after two months because he felt uncomfortable. “He always made us take our shirts off when we played,” says Steven. “He was a bit crazy, and some of the kids called him Mr. Creepy.”

Despite all the whispering about him, Hamilton, who lived in a squalid two-bedroom flat in Stirling that was plastered with photographs of little boys, was determined to clear his name. Late last year he mailed 7,000 flyers to parents in the Dunblane area, urging them to enroll their boys in the latest club he was starting, the Dunblane Rovers. Just a few days before the murders he sent a dossier of complaints against Scout officials to the Queen—who is the royal patron for scouting—and the BBC, insisting that he had been unfairly maligned over the years. “He believed there was a huge conspiracy against him,” says one former friend. All the same, he gave no indication of what lay ahead. On the morning of the murders, an elderly neighbor, Kathleen Kerr, who often had a cup of coffee with him, saw Hamilton leaving his flat looking utterly untroubled. He even gave her a cheery wave.

In the days after the bloodletting, there were the predictable calls to toughen the country’s gun control laws even further and perhaps to introduce security measures at schools. Nearly everyone agreed that no matter what happened, Dunblane would never be the same again. And yet there were those who maintained that once the grieving was over, the greatest tribute to the memory of the 17 who died would be to try to make it so. “A barbed-wire fence around the school would just change our whole identity,” says Sydney Hopper. “We should instead do everything we can to re-create the spirit we had before the murders.”