WHEN THE SHOOTING BEGAN, Ron Neander and Gwen, his wife of 45 years, were browsing in the shop next to the Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania. "I thought, 'What the hell? A balloon?' " says Ron. "I turn around, and here he is standing Rambo-style. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!" Gwen was looking at greeting cards when Neander, 65, saw another woman's head jerk back, then a spray of blood. "I thought, 'Christ, this is real.' " Terrifyingly real, and getting closer by the second. Still firing his semiautomatic rifle, a lean young man with long blond hair was moving toward them. The shooting went on and on—and then the young man was gone.

Twenty people were dead at the Broad Arrow, Gwen Neander, 67, among them. Outside, the shooter, Martin Bryant, 28, was still dispassionately picking off victims, most of them visitors to Port Arthur. One of Tasmania's busiest tourist attractions, it is the site of the historic penal colony and 19th-century prison. Those who could, fled; others hid and prayed to be spared. Finally, Bryant commandeered a BMW and holed up at a nearby guest house with three hostages. Police captured him after he set fire to the cottage. Bryant emerged in flames, while his hostages were later found among the ashes.

When the body count was complete, 35 men, women and children were dead and 18 injured, more than have been killed by a single gunman in peacetime in recent years. Bryant, badly burned, remains in a Hobart hospital under a 24-hour police guard. He has been charged with one count of murder, though others will no doubt follow. In Australia, where few people own guns and there is no death penalty, the carnage was difficult to grasp. "This has shaken the core of this country in a way that no individual crime has done in my lifetime," said Prime Minister John Howard.

Yet when neighbors and acquaintances learned Bryant was the killer, they were shocked but not completely surprised. "I understand it," says Melissa Tiedemann, 35, who has known Bryant since 1985, when he, his mother, Carleen, and sister Lyndy, now a chef, would visit Tiedemann's father's Port Arthur craft shop. "Martin was a bit slow. It was important for him to compare everything and to feel he had the best stuff. I can just see him saying, 'I shot 35 people, how many did you shoot?' It all seems to fit."

In 1992, Bryant survived an accident in a car driven by Helen Harvey, 59, with whom he had lived for about a year on a farm in nearby Copping. Though some believed they were lovers, a neighbor said, "She told us she was like a mother to him, and that his parents couldn't handle him. She used to calm him down." Harvey died in the crash, leaving Bryant—a onetime vegetable salesman—the farm and a large house in Hobart. In 1993 his father, Maurice, 64, a retired dockworker, was found at the bottom of a pond on the farm, a diver's weight belt around his shoulders. The death was ruled a suicide.

That year, Bryant moved to Harvey's home in Hobart. Yvonne Briggs, 50, of nearby Mt. Stuart, remembers meeting him in 1994. "He started talking and said it was awful to be lonely and, 'Would you like to go out?' " Bryant said he liked older women. "He was a gentleman," she says, recalling their three dates, one for dinner and dancing at a local pub. "He treated me like his mother." Neighbors at the farm, though, say that more than once, Bryant threatened to shoot uninvited guests.

Three days after the Port Arthur killings, sitting in a hotel room, waiting for his son Alan, 39, to take him home, Ron Neander was still trying to take it all in. He and Gwen had recently retired, and their 10-day Tasmanian holiday was only their second vacation ever. They had both worked their whole lives running funeral homes, so it wasn't death itself but the sheer scale of the killing that seemed overpowering. Gwen will forever be part of Bryant's infamy. And as for Port Arthur, it "will always be on the map," says Neander, "until somebody hits 36 people."

MARJORIE ROSEN
CRAIG HENDERSON, DI WEBSTER and LOUISE TALBOT in Port Arthur

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Henderson,
  • Di Webster,
  • Louise Talbot.