DUNBLANE, Scotland - They gathered last night inside a Roman Catholic church just down the road from a bullet-scarred school, and they prayed for the dead.
Some wept. Others sang. Nearly all in the crowd that filled the old church received Holy Communion. And when the service of remembrance ended, not with a song, but with silence, they stayed behind as the smoke from extinguished candles floated to the beamed ceiling.
With quiet dignity, Dunblane grieved for its children.
The taciturn villagers tried to come to terms with Wednesday's shooting spree that left 16 children and their teacher dead.
Thomas Hamilton, 43, a person nearly everyone in the town knew, and who many mistrusted, ended the rampage by killing himself.
"Evil visited us yesterday [Wednesday]," said Ronald Taylor, the principal at Dunblane Primary School. "We don't know why and we don't understand it, and I guess we never will."
Dunblane offered prayers and flowers for the victims, and expressed mounting anger that no one was able to prevent the tragedy.
Canon Basil O'Sullivan led the prayers last night at the local Catholic church and read a message of sympathy from Pope John Paul II.
He told the congregation: "I know so many hearts are broken. We can only ask God to comfort and help."
In front of the school, villagers created a carpet of flowers, cards and stuffed animals.
Someone left 17 red roses, each bearing a card that read: "May You Play Forever."
Someone else placed a scrawled note with a simple phrase: "God Bless Them, Every One."
Abdul Fattah, 39, and his sons Ali, 7, and Abdulha, 11, were among those who left flowers.
"As a parent with children at the school, well, you feel relief that your children came home," said Mr. Fattah, a lecturer in Islamic studies at nearby Stirling University.
"My children will sleep in their beds at night. But there is sorrow for others. And there are beds that are now empty."
Most shops on the main street that rises to the village's 13th-century cathedral remained closed yesterday. But Keith Harding, who runs the local candy store and sells newspapers, opened his shop for business, delivering news to the shocked community. Staring from newspaper racks were pictures of the smiling faces of the children, now dead.
"It all hit me when I opened up these newspapers and saw these headlines," said Mr. Harding, a local political leader. "It's about my town and people I know."
Mr. Harding spoke for a few minutes before abruptly going to a back room. He was sobbing.
Few could make sense of the tragedy visited on their community by a balding, middle-aged man.
Mr. Hamilton, a bachelor and youth group leader from Stirling, was hounded for more than 20 years by allegations that he took an undue interest in boys. He was forced to resign as a Boy Scout leader in 1974. And local officials had investigated several complaints lodged by parents since then.
Mr. Hamilton talked about a community campaign against him in seven letters he had written recently to parents, local politicians and Queen Elizabeth II. The letters were received by news organizations yesterday and apparently were mailed by Mr. Hamilton in the hours before the killings.
In one, he said rumors about him had reached "epidemic proportions."
"I cannot even walk the streets for fear of embarrassing ridicule," he wrote.
Anne Dickson, a local politician, said people had been keeping watch on Mr. Hamilton for years. She led the fight 10 years ago to prevent Mr. Hamilton's boys club from using local facilities, a move that was overturned by a government arbitrator.
"You had to meet him," she said. "He had a very weak face. No expression. Very piercing eyes. He didn't blink."
On Wednesday, Mr. Hamilton methodically slaughtered 5- and 6-year-olds and their teacher, Gwenne Mayor, in the school gymnasium.
The rampage apparently lasted 10 minutes, not three, as first reported.
Students cowered in classrooms as the gunshots rang out. Children in the hallway outside the gym saw Mr. Hamilton, who wore a black cap and black earmuffs.
"He was the kind of man you have nightmares about," said 11-year-old Laura Bryce.
When the shooting ended, teachers cradled bleeding children. A doctor in a local emergency room tended to the wounded before realizing that her daughter was among the dead.
Grief-stricken teachers and school staff members could not face providing identifications for the class photo of the smiling children.
"It was the worst nightmare," said Mr. Taylor, the principal. "I can't get the images out of my head yet."
The villagers say they will never forget the children.
Parents and students must come to grips with the fact that the school, a place now associated with death, will reopen next week.
Already, there is concern about what to do with the gymnasium.
"The building is part of the tragic event. Knocking it down won't make the tragedy go away," said Gordon Jeyes, a director of education services.
"The gym is a special place now."
Pub Date: 3/15/96