UT tower shooting remembered, 48 years later

AUSTIN (KVUE)-- Forty-eight years ago, students studied, napped and socialized under a canopy of oak trees on the University of Texas at Austin's South Mall. It was hot and quiet, aside from birds chirping and students laughing. The tower bells chimed a quarter to noon. Then, shots rang out.

Architectural engineering student Charles Whitman had climbed to the top of the university's famed clock tower, a staple of the Austin skyline and what would soon become a symbol of unthinkable tragedy.

It was Aug. 1, 1966.

Whitman, who had carried three rifles, two pistols and a sawed-off shotgun to the top of the tower, opened fire on the pedestrians below, shooting anyone he could reach within five city blocks.

The former Marine, 25, had already murdered his wife and mother earlier that morning.

In her 2006 oral history of the shootings, Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Coloff noted, "Hundreds of students, professors, tourists and store clerks witnessed the 96-minute killing spree as they crouched behind trees, hid under desks, took cover in stairwells, or, if they had been hit, played dead."

"You could hear cries, people yelling, 'I'm hit' or people yelling, 'Help him. He's hurt!'" recalled former reporter Neal Spelce, who witnessed the shooting. "Gunshots, sirens, searing heat coming down, and it was all non-stop. People would dart back and forth rushing out to rescue a body that was lying on the south lawn of the tower and carry them off."

The first victim arrived at University Medical Center Brackenridge at 12:12 p.m., with victims arriving every two minutes in that first hour after the shooting. When the carnage ended, 14 people were dead; another 32 wounded.

The massacre lasted 96 fateful minutes, ending when Austin police officers Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez both fired shots at Whitman, hitting him in the head and heart, killing him.

It was one of the first mass shootings in the United States, in a decade marked with violence: The Vietnam War; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the Manson family murders; the slaughter of eight nursing students in Chicago.

In 1999, 33 years after the murders and the same year the tower's observation deck reopened after being closed due to a series of suicides, then-UT president Larry Faulkner erected a memorial behind the tower. The Turtle Pond and the adjacent garden, which were built in the 1930s, were dedicated in memory of those killed and injured during the shootings. However, the most telling memorial is perhaps the bullet holes, which can still be seen in the limestone walls of the buildings surrounding the tower.

UT students plan to create a "living memorial" to honor the victims on Friday, beginning at the Littlefield Fountain at 11:30 a.m., walking to the locations where each victim fell and stopping to remember each person. The walk will conclude at the Turtle Pond.


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