May 01, 1996

Article at The American Reporter

Massacre Stuns Australians as Death Toll Rises to 35

AN AMERICAN REPORTER SPECIAL REPORT 

An Australian police tactical response team arriving at Port Arthur

by Wilson da Silva
American Reporter Correspondent 

MELBOURNE – The ferocity of Sunday’s massacre in the Australian tourist hamlet of Port Arthur, in which a man armed with two semi-auto- matic rifles gunned down 35 people, has stunned a nation unused to the specter of such violence. 

The afternoon massacre in the otherwise idyllic setting, a long-disused convict settlement in the southern wilderness island state of Tasmania, dominated the airwaves and filled the newspapers for the second day running as Australians tried to come to terms with the tragedy. 

Police said on Tuesday that they had uncovered another body in the burned-out ruins of the guest house where they captured a man, whom they identified as Martin Bryant, a wealthy but reportedly disturbed 28-year-old local. 

He had been holed up in the guest house with three hostages for 14 hours following the start of the massacre, until driven out – his clothes alight – by an unexplained fire on Monday morning. He was disarmed by police and flown by helicopter to a hospital in the nearby state capital of Hobart, where he was admitted and kept under heavy guard. 

A search of the guest house found the bodies of the elderly couple who owned the lodgings, as well as – late on Tuesday – the body of a third, thought to be a man taken hostage at a nearby gas station. 

Bryant, who was recovering from burns to his back, was charged on Tuesday with the murders at a bedside sitting of the magistrates court. 

Another 19 people wounded at the historic site were housed in the same hospital and only yards away from the accused gunman, who was placed in a private room under heavy guard. A 73-year-old woman, mother of one of the victims, died of a heart attack on hearing the news. 

The shooting spree began at 1:30 pm in the Broad Arrow Cafe, a modest diner and souvenir store facing the looming ruins of the Port Arthur Penitentiary, the centerpiece of a crumbling British penal settlement established 166 years ago and closed down in 1877. 

Witnesses reported that a young man with long blond hair – “a surfie type,” said one – pulled two assault rifles from a tennis bag and began to fire at the lunchtime crowd. 

“I didn’t know what was happening,” said Peter Creswell, a diner patron who survived with a minor gunshot wound to the leg. “I just recognized the sound of a high-powered rifle and then I saw this guy’s head explode.” 

One of the victims being taken by ambulance

Men, women and children were shot in the head, chest and upper body as they sat eating their meals, and 20 died. Another 17 who tried to escape were also wounded, the gunman following them out into the parking lot, where he also shot and killed three tourists standing by a bus and the driver as he sat at the wheel. 

One witness said the gunman, armed with an Armalite AR-15 and a Chinese-made Simonov SKS-46, followed one of the fleeing tourists under the bus, shooting until he was sure his victim was dead. 

“He wasn’t going ‘bang, bang, bang,’“ Wendy Curr, a worker at the historic parkland, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio. “It was ‘bang’, and then he’d pick someone else out and line them up and shoot them.” 

As dozens of people fled the cafe into the surrounding forest, the gunman got into his car and drove 500 yards to the gates of the park, taking potshots at people as he went. 

A woman and her three-year-old child were killed as the mother tried to protect it from the volley of bullets. A six-year-old girl who ran from the scene was chased 10 yards to where she hid behind a tree and was shot in the head, witnesses said. 

“The bastard took off halfway up the hill and shot them,” a witness was quoted saying in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. “They were running away from the gunfire ... he jumped in a vehicle, went after them and shot them.” 

When he reached the gates, the gunman shot and killed a park attendant as he sat at his booth, then fired at cars as they pulled up to pay the entrance fee. 

Two elderly women told reporters that they escaped by slamming their car into reverse when their windscreens were shot out. 

Witnesses hiding in the surrounding dense bushland said they then saw the gunman stop a gold-colored BMW sedan and kill three men as they sat in the vehicle. He then dragged the bodies out and dropped them onto the road, picked up ammunition from his parked Volvo, then drove off in the blood-stained BMW. 

“I could see a person with blond hair dragging bodies out of the car and throwing them onto the road, and they were just collapsing,” Jim Laycock, who had been drinking coffee at the back of his nearby photographic kiosk, told The Australian newspaper. 

On the road out of Mason Cove, around which the historic park is centered, Laycock saw the man stop at a gas station and approach another car. He ordered the male passenger into the trunk of the BMW, and then walked up to the female driver and shot her in the head. 

She was found slumped on the dashboard, her glasses scattered and the sheepskin seatcovers stained with blood. 

Police said he then drove further up the roadway where he shot at a passing four-wheel drive, leaving two people critically injured, before driving three miles north to the guest house where he also took the owners hostage. 

By this time, police and paramedics were converging on Port Arthur. Helicopter pilots ferrying wounded from the site reported being shot at as they flew over the cottage. 

With the guest house surrounded, police negotiating teams opened a dialogue with the man, who demanded a helicopter and safe passage to the mainland state of South Australia. 

This halted when the batteries of the mobile phone he was using gave out, and he began to shoot sporadic volleys of gunfire from an upper balcony, which continued until his capture on Monday morning. 

Back at the diner, reporters described the scene as horrific, with blood splattered across furniture and bullet holes peppering the walls. Bodies continued to lie slumped in chairs and across tables where they had been killed, many with their meals barely touched before them. 

The bodies remained in their macabre positions until late Tuesday while police forensics experts tried to piece together the sequence of events.

“I cannot describe it as anything but a war zone in there,” a police spokesman told ABC Radio on Tuesday. 

Newspapers splashed pictures of Bryant across their front pages, with the national The Australian blaring “Face Of A Killer” and Tasmania’s Mercury “This Is The Man” – prompting concerns that the media might face charges for prejudicing a future trial. 

They reported that Bryant had inherited a Tasmanian mansion and a number of other properties in the state from an unmarried older woman, who was herself heiress to a Melbourne gambling dynasty. 

She first met Bryant when he was a 12-year-old, and used to visit the area from the nearby town of Copping during the summer. 

He moved into her home when he was 23 and she in her 50s, in the village of New Town just outside the state capital of Hobart. The woman died two years ago in a car accident in which Bryant was also injured. 

Neighbors described Bryant as “slow” and “schizophrenic.” One local couple said he had invited them to the home and made them tea but, a few minutes later, suddenly told them to leave and never return or he “would shoot” them. 

The shock of the carnage prompted Australian Prime Minister John Howard to call an early meeting of State and Federal police ministers, to try and push through tougher gun control laws. 

Gun control laws are a state responsibility in Australia, and can vary widely. Handguns are illegal, and most states have banned assault rifles and require firearms registration and periodical renewal of gun licenses. 

Tasmania, with a largely rural population, has no gun registration, issues licenses for life and allows the use of assault rifles. Gun control groups criticized the state’s conservative government, which was accused of dragging its heels on proposals to establish tougher gun laws across Australia – proposals deadlocked since 1991. 

The restrictions had been sought after a number of mass killings in Australia is the past few years. In 1987, an ex-army reservist shot and killed seven people in a busy Melbourne thoroughfare known as Hoddle Street.

Since then, another 113 people have died in mass shootings in Australia, including house and farm sieges, a clash between rival motorbike gangs in Sydney in 1988 and a shopping center carnage in 1991, also in Sydney. 

The Port Arthur massacre was the world’s worst since a drunken South Korean policeman killed 57 people and then blew himself up with a hand grenade in 1982. 

Three foreigners were among the more those killed. Two were Malaysians and the third a New Zealander, identified as Jason Winter, 29, an Auckland wine expert. 

Among the 19 wounded were two Canadians, Simon Williams, a diplomat at the Canadian High Commission, and his wife, Susan. Another unidentified person of Asian appearance, shot at the tourist bus, may also be a foreigner, police said.