Page last updated at 11:25 GMT, Monday, 7 June 2010 12:25 UK

How do towns cope after a mass shooting?

Port Arthur bereaved float candles to mark 10th anniversary
The 35 people killed at Port Arthur, Tasmania, are remembered 10 years on

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Hungerford, Dunblane, Port Arthur... Hear the names and they instantly bring to mind past horrors inflicted there by mass shootings. But could their experiences suggest what lies ahead for west Cumbria?

If you mentioned Whitehaven this time last week, few instant associations would have sprung to mind.

Sports fans may have thought of a rugby league team with a proud, if unremarkable, history. And tourists may have recalled a pleasant harbour town at the start of cycling's Coast 2 Coast trail.

Pub quiz experts might even have named it as the location of the US Navy's only attempt to invade Britain, during the War of Independence.

But last Wednesday, the world's media converged on the town as the story unfolded of how 52-year-old cabbie Derrick Bird went on the rampage and shot 12 people dead across west Cumbria.

Michael Ryan
When you say you're from Hungerford, people think of Michael Ryan... a man with a gun
Former mayor Ron Tarry

While just one of those victims died in Whitehaven, the town became a focal point for the assembled world media.

It shares this unhappy fate with the market town of Hungerford, Berkshire, where in 1987 an unemployed labourer shot dead 16 people.

"Wherever you go, when you say you're from Hungerford, people think of Michael Ryan... a man with a gun," says Ron Tarry, who was the town's mayor at the time. "It gives the wrong impression of the friendly place that it is."

That the shootings happened over a 45-mile area may yet spare Whitehaven the same legacy. But either way, once the media circus has departed, west Cumbria will find strength within itself to heal its wounds, Mr Tarry believes.

He remembers how Hungerford folk discovered a new resilience.

Whitehaven was the scene of one fatal shooting, of Darren Rewcastle

"People said 'Well, it's our problem... a Hungerford man was the one that committed the murders and it's up to us to do something about it.' There was a marvellous, spontaneous reaction from the community."

Many people manned town hall offices directing people to help services, while others raised funds for the victims - from children holding table sales to concerts and cricket matches.

Cheques were arriving even before an official tragedy fund was set up and by the time proceeds from an Andrew Lloyd-Webber-organised gala were handed over, more than £1m had been raised.

These events proved as significant as the cash, says Mr Tarry. "They helped people to bond. People's friends and families offered support and things improved for people - but it takes time."

Collective grief

Many among Hungerford's 5,500 population attended a town centre memorial service two months after the killings, which served as an occasion for collective grief.

"If not offering closure, most people felt it allowed them to take a step forward," says Mr Tarry.

Nine years later, Hungerford's leaders found themselves approached for advice by counterparts in Dunblane - where ex-scout leader Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and a teacher at a primary school.

Charles Clydesdale lived 15 miles away - in Falkirk - but was grateful for Dunblane's community spirit after his five-year-old daughter, Victoria, was killed in the massacre.

"The community really came together. Families who previously didn't want to know one another were bringing cards and gifts. It was really quite uplifting," recalls the self-employed courier, 54.

"We formed a parents' group and it gave us a chance to talk. We were all there for the same reason and as the weeks went on, we got quite friendly and came through it together."

A drop-in centre at the town's social club collected gifts and messages from around the world.

Flowers in the Dunblane Memorial Garden
Support came from around the world for the Dunblane victims

"I took a few keepsakes for my family - a Bible with a lace cover and some certificates to say some kind people we didn't know had planted a tree in my daughter's name," says Mr Clydesdale.

"It was overwhelming."

Martin Alderton, a partner in the Skipton-based Centre for Crisis Psychology, advises organisations on how best to deal with trauma.

People go through a range of reactions to the killings, he says, whether as witnesses, family members or those simply left thinking: "It could have been me." This makes community-wide support difficult because not every measure is appropriate for everyone.

Immediately after Cumbria's shootings the rector of Whitehaven, the Reverend John Bannister, acknowledged it was difficult to find the right words of comfort.

"It's a time to really just be alongside people to offer what practical help and support we can," he said.

And Mr Alderton says there can be key roles for both clergy and council in directing people towards support, organising collection points for memorials such as flowers and eventually a remembrance event.

Tragedies tend to scar smaller places more indelibly then cities, he acknowledges. While London's 7 July 2005 bombings left their mark, mention of the capital is still more likely to bring to mind Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.


Unlike London, however, Cumbria's communities involved are almost universally described as "close-knit" - which can be an advantage, Mr Alderton says.

"In a robust local community, people are quite inter-dependent and have mutual support in the form of family and friends."

Even a simple chat with neighbours or the people at the post office can help, he adds.

That community spirit was in evidence after Martin Bryant rampaged around Tasmania's historic Port Arthur penal colony in 1996, killing 35 people. The shell of the cafe where 12 people died has been left as a memorial, while plants mark the locations where others died.

Funeral director Stephen Parry, a former detective and currently an Australian federal senator, was in charge of embalming the bodies at Port Arthur, including many belonging to international tourists.

He says that while community action can help, time is the crucial factor. The affected areas may also find themselves forever changed.

"The Port Arthur peninsula has become more insular in some respects but more worldly-wise in others," he says. "It's very significant the way the whole site has been memorialised. It certainly helps people to reflect."

Ten years after the tragedy, Tasmanian playwright Tom Holloway wrote a play about the tragedy, called Beyond the Neck.

"There are many people at very different levels of psychological and emotional healing still today. There were some people I met that had been able to get on with their lives quite quickly, and others that were still significantly suffering.

"And this doesn't seem to be linked to the amount of trauma they were exposed to on the day. It seems to be completely individual."

Making general assumptions about what a community needs is very difficult because people respond differently, he says.

For example, when he was researching for his play, tourists in Port Arthur were being asked not to ask staff at the former convict settlement about the massacre. Some people agreed with this, that the memorial was enough without delving into the past.

"They didn't want to be taken back to the hugely traumatic event every time a tourist on the site or in a local shop asks about it.

"But others, also very understandably, don't like the veil of silence requested. They feel perhaps their trauma isn't really being acknowledged and they want the event to be shared with all the visitors so others can attempt to understand some of what they have been through."

If places cannot escape the past, it may be better to embrace it, says Mr Tarry of Hungerford.

"Some people moved away because they didn't like to be associated with the name but I don't think what happened changed the character of the town.

"It's a part of Hungerford's history which we won't ever get rid of - and shouldn't try to."

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