Britain Wednesday, Bloody Wednesday

  • Michael Ryan was a quiet fellow, except when it came to talking about guns. He never tired of telling his neighbors in Hungerford, a little farming town some 75 miles west of London, about his collection of firearms or showing them off whenever anyone paid attention. Ryan, 27, had recently joined the Tunnel Rifle and Pistol Club, where he practiced regularly. Said Club Manager Andrew White: "He was a very good shot. He hit an 18- by 14-in. target consistently at 100 meters." Last week Ryan used his shooting skill to deadly effect, turning his neighbors into targets in the worst massacre in modern British history.

    As he tramped through nearby Savernake Forest last Wednesday, Ryan wore a headband, a combat jacket and an ammunition belt slung over his shoulder. Suddenly he drew his 9-mm pistol and opened fire on a mother picnicking with her two children. While the horrified tots, ages 2 and 4, sobbed by their mother's body, Ryan calmly climbed into his silver Vauxhall Astra and drove off.

    Seven minutes later he arrived at the row house he shared with his widowed mother in Hungerford. He shot her, killed the family dog and set the house on fire. Retrieving a semiautomatic Kalashnikov assault rifle and ammunition from a garden shed, Ryan began walking toward the center of town, firing bursts and reloading as he went. "He was just strolling along the road, shooting at anything that moved," said Barbara Morley. Said another witness, Christopher Browsher: "He looked just like Rambo."

    Taxi Driver Marcus Barnard, on his way to visit his newborn son in the hospital, was shot through his windshield. He died instantly. A father and son emerged from a side road with two small girls. Ryan opened fire at the men, leaving the father dead in a puddle of blood. He emptied his gun into the car of a woman and her daughter, killing both. Abdul Khan, 84, was cut down in his garden, dying as his wife cradled his head. Francis Butler was killed while walking his dog. The savagery was as swift as it was deadly: 13 people died between 1:05 p.m. and 1:15 p.m. The final toll: 16 dead, 14 wounded.

    Police threw up roadblocks and used megaphones to urge residents to stay indoors. A helicopter carrying marksmen with sniper rifles whirred overhead, and teams of police with pump shotguns flooded the streets. By 2:30 p.m. they had tracked Ryan to the John O'Gaunt elementary school, which he had attended as a child. Trained negotiators arrived to talk to him, but to no avail. Shortly after 8 p.m., a muffled shot rang out. Ryan had become his own last victim.

    The eruption of violence shattered the summer serenity of England, where policemen traditionally carry no guns and where fewer than 50 murders involving firearms were committed in 1986, compared with 839 for New York City alone. Police said Ryan gave no clues as to why he had run amuck. Neighbors portrayed him as a loner who became deeply depressed after the death two years ago of his father, a popular public housing inspector. Ryan, who drifted through a number of laborer jobs and was once employed in a gun shop, appeared to have had licenses for his personal arsenal. British officials immediately said they would review the country's gun-licensing laws. Said Douglas Hogg, Under Secretary of State at the Home Office: "Obviously, there are lessons to be learned from this incident."