The Rev. Colin McIntosh knew them all. There were Victoria and Emma, Kevin and Ross, Mhairi and Brett, and all the rest, the 16 little boys and girls - and their teacher - who were murdered Wednesday by a gunman inside a gymnasium at the Dublane Primary School.
“They were happy kids,” McIntosh said Wednesday night as a light snow fell on the village’s 13th century cathedral. “They were taught to look after each other and love each other. And now, they’re gone.”
The slaughter of the 5- and 6-year-olds - and the suicide of the gunman - has shocked a nation and broken the heart of a quiet market town of 7,300 on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.
At least 12 other kindergarten pupils were wounded along with another teacher. One pupil survived the midmorning attack unscathed.
“This is a very peaceful place,” McIntosh said. “It’s not America. This is the last place you would expect something like this to happen.”
At 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Thomas Hamilton, 43, armed with four handguns, burst into the school’s gymnasium and went on a shooting spree which lasted three minutes and ended when he put one last bullet in his head.
“The firing was very fast, like someone hitting a hammer quickly,” said 11-year-old Steven Hopper, who was in a nearby classroom.
Medical personnel described a scene of horror, as the gymnasium was turned into a killing field.
“It was a like a scene out of a medieval torture chamber,” John McEwan, who coordinated the rescue operation, told The Scottish Daily Record. “There were literally piles of dead bodies, most of them just little kids. Blood was splattered all over the floor and walls and there was literally blood everywhere.”
Wounded children sat in shock, while others lay dead. The slain teacher, Gwen Mayor, a 45-year-old mother of two, apparently tried to shield the children from the bullets.
The barrage ignited waves of pandemonium, as parents by the scores rushed to the school, which has 700 pupils. Ambulance and police sirens echoed through the town, and the sky filled with helicopters.
As the pupils poured out of the school, many were swept up by weeping parents. But for the families of the dead children and teacher, there was only grief.
One woman was seen on a village street shrieking “Victoria!” “Victoria!”
Vivien Pope, a neighbor of one of those killed, 5-year-old John Petrie, cried out, “He was a lovely wee boy with a cheery face.”
“There are some moments beyond human comprehension,” McIntosh said. “This was one of those moments. We sat with the parents whose children were in that class as they waited to hear the news. For the parents, it must have been absolute torture.”
Over and over, came the refrain: How could so much killing happen in such a place as this, where the biggest news in years was the opening of a new supermarket in January.
In Britain, fewer than 1,000 murders occur each year, and handguns are difficult to obtain. The death toll exceeded the 1987 Hungerford Massacre, which left 17 dead, including the gunman, Michael Ryan.
A lone gunman with an apparent grudge can do great harm. Hamilton, of nearby Stirling, was a disgraced former Boy Scout leader who was described by some people as “weird and solitary” and who was said to be obsessed with boys and guns.
In recent years, Hamilton led several local boys’ clubs. In 1973 he was made a Boy Scout leader in Stirling, the Scout Association said. But in 1974 he was asked to resign “following complaints about unstable and possibly improper behavior,” a spokesman for the group told The Press Association, Britain’s domestic news agency. “Since then, he has made a number of attempts to get back into scouting,” the spokesman said, “but has never been accepted.”
He was said to have written a letter to Queen Elizabeth last Friday complaining of attempts to ruin his reputation.
Local political leaders said they had known of Hamilton.
“This man was investigated over a long period of time and had done nothing,” Labor’s Shadow Scottish Secretary, George Robertson told the British Broadcasting Corp. “But you can’t legislate for every eventuality.”
Barry Lacol, a 24-year-old Dunblane native, said some parents tried to keep their children away from Hamilton.
“When I was in school, he’d invite us up to his home,” Lacol said. “But he never came on strong.”
“He was in a rifle club, and he used to put a can of Coke at the end of the range and fire at it, and get all excited,” Lacol added.
Police investigators said the gunman “knew what he was doing” as he barged into the school and entered the gym through a locker room.
“I think it would be fair to say that those who saw him in the corridor knew exactly what his intentions were and they were given no chance to try and prevent him,” said Police Superintendent Louis Munn of Strathclyde.
The superintendent said it was “sheer luck” that one child escaped without being wounded.
As news of the killings spread, the politicians and leaders reacted. British Prime Minister John Major said he was “shocked and horrified” by the massacre. Labor leader Tony Blair said the killings “devastated” the nation.
The citizens of the village appeared to take comfort from the words of support. The school will be closed for the remainder of the week as the town tries to absorb the tragedy.
McIntosh recalled meeting with the children who were killed just a few weeks ago in a school assembly. He began to cry as he spoke of the dead.
“We have to prepare for funerals,” he said.