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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December, 2004, 10:57 GMT
How a gun massacre changed Britain
Michael Ryan
Ryan told police it had "been like a bad dream" before killing himself
Every few years a crime happens that is so momentous it leaves an indelible mark on the whole nation. A BBC programme reconstructs the Hungerford Massacre and considers how it changed Britain.

On 19 August 1987 a small village in Berkshire became the setting for what was then the biggest mass murder in British history.

Heavily armed with a Kalashnikov, an automatic rifle and a Beretta pistol, Michael Ryan took to the streets of Hungerford firing at anyone in his path.

By the end of the afternoon Ryan had gunned down 16 people including his own mother, seriously wounded another 15 people and transformed the lives of everyone who was unlucky enough to be there that day.

According to Sir Charles Pollard, the officer in charge of police operations that day, it had a profound effect far beyond the Berkshire village.

Fantasy world

He says: "I think Britain grew up as a result of Hungerford in some ways. The realisation that this could happen in a market town in England where we don't have guns and where the police aren't armed. That changed policing and in one sense it changed society forever."

Like people involved in similar tragedies Michael Ryan lived in an elaborately constructed fantasy world and had become obsessed with firearms. He belonged to two gun clubs and all of his weapons were licensed and legally owned.

Hungerford is part of a rural community where hunting is a common pastime and many of the people who saw him that day mistakenly thought the Kalashnikov he was carrying was a shotgun.

It was hard to believe Ryan was wielding a deadly assault weapon that was lethal at 300 yards. Back in 1987 Ryan was allowed to own a shocking arsenal of weapons while the majority of our police force was unarmed.

I'm remembering the ball of ice in my stomach as we arrived in this small town
Sir Charles Pollard
Former Thames Valley chief constable
PC Jim Wood and his colleague PC Roger Brereton were the first police officers to try and tackle Ryan - they were both unarmed. The programme follows Jim Wood as he returns to Hungerford and remembers the horror of seeing Ryan shooting into his friend's police car.

"I don't know how to describe it really, just disbelief. I don't think a day goes past when sometime or another you don't reflect on it and think you could have done something different. I lost a good friend here."

For many of the other survivors and eye-witnesses there was also a huge sense of disbelief. Ken Hall watched as Ryan shot and killed the local taxi driver. He says: "I was thinking this is unreal. This can't be happening in Hungerford."

Julie Jackson was shot in the back as she tried to help an elderly neighbour and remembers how she felt when she was taken to the ambulance. "It was just like a war zone. You don't expect to see bodies like we saw on that day," she says.

On that August day and in the weeks to follow there was a sense of shock and terrible loss. But there was also a sense of confusion and insecurity. How could one man have killed so many without being stopped?

'Helpless'

The answer lay in the breakdown of a police communications system that was fatally flawed. Even though they were shocked and badly wounded, many of the survivors and eye-witnesses had managed to call the police but because the system was so old there were only two 999 lines into the police switchboard.

For the men on the Newbury switchboard taking the calls the scale of the disaster was apparent, but there were so many calls coming in it took time to get the information up to HQ.

AK47 Kalashnikov assault rifle
Kalashnikovs like Ryan's have been banned
In 1987 police communications in the Thames Valley area were long overdue for an upgrade and this presented Charles Pollard with an almost impossible task. "I'm remembering the ball of ice in my stomach as we arrived in this small town," he recalls.

"The lifeblood of any operation like this is communications. You know you're supposed to be in charge and you just don't have any information. I just felt helpless for most of the afternoon."

As the day came to a close, Ryan barricaded himself in a nearby school before he put a bullet through his own head.

Hungerford and Britain would never be the same. A year after the massacre, British gun laws were changed and semi-automatic weapons like Ryan's Kalashnikov were outlawed by the government.

Britain's police were given a new communications system and the 999 network was updated and modernised.

Hungerford Massacre was broadcast on BBC One at 2100 GMT on Tuesday 7 December.




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