The Deadly Tower
Senior editor Pamela Colloff talks about tracking down eyewitnesses and listening to their accounts of Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from atop the University of Texas Tower.
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texasmonthly.com: Why is it important to speak to these witnesses forty years later?
Pamela Colloff: There is a whole new generation of people—newcomers to Austin, UT alumni, people like me who were born after 1966—who don’t know the details of what happened that day. They may know Whitman’s name and they may know that he shot at students from the Tower, but they don’t know a whole lot more than that. And most people who were around then have forgotten the details. This is an important chapter in Texas history, and it shouldn’t be forgotten. I didn’t want to wait until the fiftieth anniversary to do an oral history, because some key people have already died and because memories are fading.
texasmonthly.com: Of the hundreds of people involved in the shootings, how did you select those whose stories are told in your article?
PC: I interviewed anyone I could find who was there that day. I started off by reading lots of old newspaper articles and the only book that has been written about the shootings—Gary Lavergne’s terrific A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders. I wrote down all the names I could find. From there, I eliminated anyone who was dead (or who was probably dead). Then I had to find people. Gary Lavergne was kind enough to give me contact information for a couple of key people in the story. Other than that, I used a database of Texas driver’s license records, an online phone directory, and Google searches to try to track people down. Then I made a lot of phone calls and sent out a lot of letters. In the beginning, I was working from a list of about 75 names.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this piece?
PC: The better part of three months. It took a long time to track people down.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of experiences did you have talking to the witnesses? Were you able to meet most of them in person?
PC: I don’t like doing phone interviews, but this story necessitated it because of the number of people I was trying to contact. I interviewed some people in and around Austin in person, but otherwise I interviewed folks over the phone. A few people e-mailed me answers to questions, and I followed their written answers up with phone calls.
texasmonthly.com: Was anyone reluctant to recall the event, or did you get the feeling that most of the eyewitnesses have told their stories countless times?
PC: I wasn’t able to track down everybody on my list; some people had moved too many times, or had a married name that I didn’t know. When I was able to find people, they were usually—but not always—interested in talking to me. Some people who had been shot, and nearly everyone who knew Charles Whitman, were more reluctant to talk.
texasmonthly.com: What are you trying to achieve with the format of your article? Why not simply have each person tell his or her story in succession?
PC: That would have been impossible. Most interviews lasted for at least two hours, so I had to edit people’s stories down to manageable bits and pieces. After doing that, it only made sense to weave together what people had said in chronological order.
texasmonthly.com: Were there many narratives or parts of narratives that you had to leave out?
PC: Absolutely. My interview with Claire James, for example, was probably longer than the entire article. And that was true of a lot of the interviews. So I had to be selective. That’s the case with any article, not just an oral history; my job is to pick the most interesting moments and details from months of reporting, and turn it into a narrative.
texasmonthly.com: Why the institutional silence at UT, among both administration and students? Why wait until 1999 to make any formal recognition of the victims?
PC: I can’t give you a definitive answer to that, but my personal opinion is that “the incident,” as people used to call it, was so disturbing and upsetting that it wasn’t easy to talk about. This was before “grief counselors” and that sort of thing; as far as I know, the victims who survived were not required to get any psychological help. I’m guessing that a lot of people thought that it was better not to talk about it, and hoped that it would just go away. Also, institutionally, the university didn’t want what happened on that one day to permanently tarnish the school. So there were all these years of silence.
texasmonthly.com: Will the Tower’s symbolic status recover?
PC: I think it already has. Except for the students who were there that day, I don’t think most people still look at the Tower and immediately think of Charles Whitman. The fact that those memories have faded, though, made it seem more important to do this story.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to write about this in an oral history format?
PC: Very few crimes are witnessed firsthand by hundreds and hundreds of people. I wanted to hear people’s stories and try to document them before they were lost. Many of the interviews for this story were very emotional; people said that they hadn’t really been given the opportunity to talk before about what they had seen that day. One man broke down during our interview; he said he hadn’t talked about what he had seen for forty years. I felt lucky to hear his memories. That’s how I felt about every story in the article.