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"Slaughter of the innocents' // Loner murders teacher, 16 kindergarteners

One child, sobbing, leaned heavily against a car door. Another, her eyes glazed, stumbled through the jostling crowd at the primary school gate.

In the main street nearby, a woman shrieked, "Victoria! Victoria!"

Dunblane, a tranquil cathedral town at the foot of the Scottish Highlands, roiled in grief and horror Wednesday after a disgraced former Boy Scout leader armed with four handguns killed or wounded all but one of 29 kindergarteners playing in the school gymnasium, and killed their teacher.

The slaughter lasted two minutes. The killer saved one bullet for himself.

Just setting in is the shock, the stunned disbelief in this beautiful country town, and throughout a nation with strict gun control laws and very few multiple slayings.

"Just now, to most people, this is a nightmare," said school board member Gerry McDermott. "But they will not wake up from it."

Five-year-old Stewart Weir will never forget the man with the guns. The boy ran, escaped with only a bullet-grazed leg and was able to tell his Dad about it.

"Stewart said he thought the gunman was shooting at him," Robert Weir said after comforting his son in the hospital. "He got hit in the leg, so he took a run and just hid with another wee girl. It is lucky the man turned the gun on himself before he got the rest of the kids."

Frantic parents tried to get into the school while police and ambulance workers inside confronted unspeakable horror.

"I can only describe what I saw . . . as a medieval vision of hell," paramedic John McEwan told The Sun, a London tabloid. "There were little bodies in piles, dotted around the room, and items of children's clothing like shoes and pumps around the floor."

The final toll was 16 dead children, 12 wounded children, two dead adults _ one of them the gunman, who took his own life _ and two wounded teachers. The dead children included 11 girls and five boys.

"This is a slaughter of the innocents. That any child should have been slaughtered in this way is absolutely appalling," said Helen Liddell, a spokeswoman for the opposition Labor Party.

Reading slowly from a typed list Wednesday night, Dunblane police Superintendent Louis Munn called out name after name of the dead children: "Victoria Clydesdale, age 5 . . . Emma Crozier, age 5 . . . Melissa Currie, age 5 . . . Charlotte Dunn, age 5 . . . Kevin Hassell, age 5 . . . Ross Irvine, age 5 . . ."

Dunblane is the sort of place people almost never leave, a place whose 9,000 residents clearly care about each other. Just 35 miles northwest of Edinburgh, it straddles the River Allan in the spectacular Perthshire countryside leading into the highlands.

An ecclesiastical center since the seventh century, it has a cathedral, which, like the town's life, was described by Victorian social theorist John Ruskin as "perfect in its simplicity."

It also had Thomas Hamilton, 43, a reclusive man who lived in a public housing project in Stirling, 5 miles away, and came to Dunblane to supervise a boys' club.

Balding and bespectacled, Hamilton belonged to a local gun club and liked taking photographs. Beyond that, neighbors did not know much about Hamilton. Not, for example, that he was a scout leader in Stirling in the early 1970s but was expelled for what the Boy Scouts Association called "complaints about unstable and possibly improper behavior following a Scout camp."

He kept up his involvement with young people, however, running boys' groups that met in municipal halls in Stirling, Dunblane and neighboring towns through the 1980s.

Some parents then expressed suspicions about his activities, and boys complained about his habit of photographing them once he had made them assume strange poses, thrusting out their chests or executing gymnastic moves, usually after stripping off their shirts.

Always, Hamilton wanted to get back into the Scouts. Five days ago he wrote to Queen Elizabeth II, scouting's patron, reportedly to complain the Boy Scouts Association was sullying his reputation.

Local teenagers knew him as "the weirdo" of Dunblane.

Hamilton arrived at the school, in a well-to-do section of town, about 9:30 a.m. and began firing his weapons haphazardly on the playground, according to Munn, the police superintendent. No one was hit, and Hamilton made his way inside.

"Several people saw him, but I don't think they had the opportunity to challenge him," Munn said.

In Dunblane, no one had ever thought of guarding a school.

"This is a very peaceful place," said the Rev. Colin McIntosh. "It's not America."

At 9:30 a.m., teacher Gwenne Mayor, 45, was supervising 29 lively youngsters as they ran around the gym and took turns scrambling up the climbing bars. That's the moment Hamilton appeared in the doorway.

He entered the first-floor auditorium where children from Primary One _ equivalent to an American kindergarten or first grade _ were in gym class, and began to shoot. Hamilton fired his guns for about two minutes. He apparently shot the children even as they ran from him in panic.

The teacher was a beloved figure at the school. "She made you feel safe," said a Dunblane teenager, Caroline Leonard, who was taught by Mayor when she was younger. But there was nothing Mayor could do to keep her charges or herself out of harm's way.

"The bodies were all found in the same vicinity _ close together," said Munn, the police superintendent. Ambulance workers told police that after shooting the children Hamilton shot himself in the head.

The principal called the police at 9:38 a.m., and rescue workers later said they arrived to a scene of unspeakable horror.

Pat Greenhill, a town official, said emergency workers were devastated by what they found. "The policemen had seen nothing like that before," she said, "having to go into that gymnasium and see all those little children lying there."

Elsewhere in the school, children heard a noise like firecrackers and jumped up from their desks and ran to windows to see what was going on.

Many children, like 8-year-old Joan Nelson, thought the noise was coming from workmen repairing the roof. They thought that until teachers realized what was happening, latched on to their students and ran for cover wherever they could find it.

"My teacher grabbed me and we hid behind her desk" in a classroom, Joan said. "Keep calm. Don't panic," the girl said her teacher told her over and over as they hid in fear behind a desk. "She was very confused and I was very scared," Joan said.

She said Mayor had been her "favorite teacher. She was very kind, very caring."

Police, headquartered just a few hundred yards away, arrived within a few minutes, followed closely by doctors, paramedics, ambulances and later helicopters.

The gym was "completely silent," said Dr. Jack Beattie, one of the first physicians to arrive. "Teachers were comforting the children who were still alive."

The youngsters "were very quiet. They were in shock."

It was Britain's worst shooting since Michael Ryan, 27, also a loner and gun enthusiast, shot 16 people in the southern English market town of Hungerford on Aug. 19, 1987. He, too, killed himself.

Parents learned of the shootings quickly and rushed to the school. The lucky ones, sobbing with relief, hugged the children who emerged.

Robert Weir said his son "just told me that someone came busting in shooting. . . . Other than that, he's been very quiet. He doesn't know the extent of what's happened."

There was neither relief nor solace for those led to an adjacent building or the nearby Westlands Hotel to be told the worst possible news, that their daughters or sons were dead.

Police official Munn said that as horrific as the incident was, it appeared to have been "totally random" and without explanation: "At the moment we are unaware of any motive."

On television, politicians' voices shook. The queen sent a message _ "I share the grief and horror of the whole country" _ as did the prime minister.

The town shut down. Shops closed early. Local TV programing was suspended. A morgue was set up in the school, and as night fell, parents filed in to make a formal identification for police.

Scores of people drifted in ones, twos and threes toward the cathedral, where they prayed in silence.

On Hillside Avenue, Jean Shannon glanced toward the next-door yard and knew she would never see young Kevin Hassell playing there again.

"He was a lovable wee thing, a typical wee boy," she said. "I've been over to the house. They're bloody shocked. Like us all."

_ Information from Reuters, the New York Times and the Washington Post was used in this report.