One of the greatest cultural icons in the United States is the tower that sits on the grounds of the University of Texas at Austin. However, this same architectural icon is one that holds the unfortunate distinction of being the host of one of the most horrific events in the history of the country.
50 years ago on Monday, August 1, 1966, the tower’s observation deck became home to 96 minutes of sheer terror when UT student Charles Whitman began to open fire.
The day started out like any other. While there weren’t many students attending summer school, there were still students who were on campus. All in all, the day was like any other in the city of Austin. Then the shots started to ring out.
Prior to Whitman’s rampage, he murdered both his mother and his wife at their homes before heading to the UT campus. Once he reached the campus tower’s observation deck – approximately 231 feet up in the air – Whitman began to open fire. Around 96 minutes later, police cornered Whitman before fatally shooting him, putting an end to the terror. In the end, a total of 14 people were killed and 32 others were wounded.
All were transported to Brackenridge Hospital, where the wounded received immediate treatment. The real shock, however, seemed to come in the days that followed the shooting. While UT closed Tuesday in order to clean up, they reopened the very next day and carried on their normal business – almost as if nothing tragic happened. In fact, there are some individuals who, to this day, claim that UT officials were in a state of denial regarding the shooting itself.
50 years after this horrible day, the incident has been recognized as the first mass shooting of its kind to take place at a school or the campus of a major university. There are still many questions that have gone unanswered, such as the following:
*What was Charles Whitman thinking on that day?
*Why did something like this happen?
*What could have been done to prevent this horrible event?
Recently, Texas Standard spoke with 100 different individuals who had close ties to the events of 50 years ago. They include news reporters, students, professors, and mental health professionals. Not only did some of these people know some of the victims who were killed and wounded, but some of them also knew Charles Whitman as well. Additionally, some of them were also brave enough to help move others to safety.
Here are some excerpts of what some of them had to say about that day, courtesy of TowerHistory.org:
Ray Martinez (Austin Police Officer, Tower): “You let your training take over. You’re kind of like a robot, remote controlled so to speak. Bullets keep coming up at us. They crack – you could hear the crack as they go over your head, and then they’d hit the tower. Dust would come down, rain down in little particles of stone.”
Milton Shoquist (Austin Police Officer, Tower): “Nobody could comprehend or conceive this happening, therefore there were no plans to counteract something like this.”
Linda Swan Adkins (Hogg Foundation Employee, Tower – 24th Floor): “I had just graduated from UT and was working for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health on the 24th floor of the Tower the day of the shooting. Never having been around guns, when we heard the first shots, it sounded to me like lots of metal folding chairs being collapsed on a concrete floor. We heard the family he shot first yelling ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ My boss, who was a retired Lt. Col. From the Air Force opened the door to the stairway and saw all the smoke. We didn’t know what was going on, but barricaded ourselves in two corner offices and put the furniture up against the doors. The only other man who worked at the Foundation was also retired military, so he recognized the shooting for what it was. When the shooter stopped mid-attack to reload, we were afraid he was coming down the stairs. There was only one occupied floor above us before you reach the observation deck. We would look out the windows and see people fall, and then hear the shot. We tried to warn people, but we were so far up that they couldn’t hear us. We saw people fall as far away as the Varsity Theater at 24th and Guadalupe. All in all, it was a terrifying day, one that I will never forget.”
Carole Riggs (Graduate Student, Tower): “I was indeed there in the Tower on that awful day. I was a graduate student working in the Dean of Admissions Office, which was at that time – and may still be – on the first floor. The stairwell that ascended to the tower observatory deck opened directly into our office via a glass door, so we were pretty terrified.”
Claire Wilson James (Student, South Mall): “I thought I was electrocuted. Tom (Eckman, her boyfriend) reached out to try to help me. He saw something was wrong, because I was falling. And then he started falling to. I remember he said the word ‘Baby.”…And then he didn’t speak anything else.”
Sue McCann Wiseman (Student, Old Library Building): “It was 90 minutes of just, ‘How could this be happening?’ And then finally, all of a sudden, it got quiet. I just called my father and said ‘I’d like to go home.’ And we did. It was one of those days when everybody just wanted to go home and hug someone.”
Bill Giorda (Station Manager, KUT Studios): “The thing that was rather galling when we thought about it later was that Whitman, if he had decided to come around to that side of the tower, would have had a direct line of sight to pick one, or the other, or both of us off.”
Harold McFarlane (Student, Physics Building): “Like everyone else who was there that day, I have memories of the events that took place. It was between my junior and senior years at UT. I had a summer job working in the basement of the old Physics Building, helping a graduate student, Richard Freeman, do plasma physics experiments. Through sports and part-time work during the year, I had become friendly with several of the graduate students in the building and they had accepted me as one of their own. As lunchtime approached, I was headed out the back door of the physics building to go get something to eat. From what I learned later, some of the first casualties were in the area between the Physics Building and the Tower. I literally had one foot outside the door when one of the grad students, probably Richard, grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back in. He wasn’t trying to save me – they had organized a lunch trip to a BBQ joint out on Bee Caves Road. It was a pretty day and everyone was ready for a break from the basement. Their car was on the other side of the building, so we went out the front door. As we loaded into the car, someone wondered aloud what the sharp noises were. We concluded that it was just construction that was going on somewhere on campus and took off for the restaurant. With a car full of people, we didn’t have the radio on and were blissfully unaware of what was happening on campus. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch; apparently no one at the restaurant knew what was going on. This was well before the days when televisions were common in such establishments. We drove back to campus, but of course were stopped several blocks away. We still didn’t know what was going on, but did notice several students walking around with their hunting rifles and a small plane circling the tower. Eventually someone on the street explained the situation. I don’t recall anything after that, except that my girlfriend, Mary Ellen Newberry, was quite relieved to hear that I was OK. She had been watching the news, was aware of my lunchtime routine, and realized that I would have been at risk. I am happy to say that we celebrated out 47th wedding anniversary last summer.”
Forrest Preece (Student, Drug Store on “The Drag”): “Something very evil was happening while I was just going about being a typical all-American 20-year-old kid going to class. It was just that much of a fine line.”
Ben Cervin (Graduate Student, Businesses and Economics Building): “I remember some aspects of the incident quite well, as I was in class at the business school completing one of the last courses required for my MBA, which I received on August 27, 1966. I observed students down, shots being fired to and from the tower, and was feet away from one of the state troopers who took up a firing position inside the business school. I believe several of Whitman’s shots struck the (Businesses and Economics Building); and I particularly recall, at the end of the event, seeing the damaged heavy glass door at the side-street entry. As an Air Force veteran having just left active duty in September 1965 to begin my coursework in the Graduate School of Business, I was somewhat less intimidated by what was going on than some of the younger students. I repeatedly maneuvered to position myself where I could see the tower and the troopers returning fire, but unlikely to be in the line of Whitman’s fire. In hindsight, probably not reckless, but still not a very smart move.”
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