The Madman on the Tower

I remember every detail of that day twenty years ago—the blue sky, the noonday heat, the gunshots, the screams, the blood, and …

August 1986By Comments

It’s like belonging to a fraternity that never meets: you are talking with someone and learn he was living in Austin in 1966, and pretty soon the subject of Charles Whitman comes up. Then for a minute or so, it’s where-were-you time—that Monday, August 1, under bright skies with the temperature approaching one hundred. I was a University of Texas graduate student supervising student publications as a part-time job. Walking from the old journalism building on Twenty-fourth Street to the Union to get a sandwich for lunch, I could hear loud reports that had the boom, snap quality of rifle shots. They were coming from the vicinity of the Main Building, but I didn’t see any unusual activity there and shrugged them off as the sounds of a nail-driving gun, which had been periodically banging away on a construction project there. Later I discovered that everyone hearing that noise was running it though a mental card-sorter until it found a slot that offered a perfectly ordinary explanation. One person, also mindful of the construction, decided that it was the sound of large planks falling over and slapping concrete. Another, closer to the mark, decided the ROTC must be shooting blanks for some ceremonial reason on the mall in front of the Main Building with its 27-story Tower. Yet another saw a girl fling herself to the grass and assumed, having read a feature in the campus paper a few days earlier, that it was some kind of goofy crowd-response experiment being carried out by the psychology folks.

I was still operating on the nail-gun theory when some students standing behind a pillar of the Academic Center started shouting something about a guy on the Tower shooting people and how I should get moving. My first response was to resent being yelled at, so I just stood there in the middle of a grassy inner-drive area, squinting up at the Tower’s northwest corner. Sure enough, I could see a gun barrel poke out over the parapet and emit smoke, followed an instant later by the boom I had been hearing. Now the computer was working a lot faster but still coming up with a bad readout: Just look at that! There’s some fool up there with a rifle, trying to get himself in one hell of a lot of trouble! From my angle, it didn’t look like the man was shooting downward, but was trying to create a commotion.

So I turned around and started walking (don’t show fear, they can smell it) the two hundred or so feet back to the protective corner of Hogg Auditorium, maybe trotting the last few yards. A student already there was pointing and jabbering about a girl who was hit in the side yard of the biology building, which I had just crossed coming from journalism. That bumped the alarm meter up substantially, and I joined him in yelling at a student strolling along the sidewalk past the old Littlefield Home, right behind us and to our left. We nearly got the guy killed, for when he stopped to look at us in puzzlement, the sniper opened up on him with a semiautomatic rifle. That sent him scrambling to the protection of an alley as bullets whacked into the low limestone wall behind him, popping like movie squibs. Since then, I’ve wondered if he knew how lucky he was that Whitman had evidently emptied his two other rifles and was using his little open-sight Army carbine. With his scoped 6mm bolt-action Remington, it had been strictly one shot, one man, in the old Marine Corps tradition.

That bit of excitement convinced me that something not only very weird but very bad was happening. I had a queasy feeling that returned later that day when the paper said one Tower office employee looked out and saw “two young boys laying face down in front of Hogg Auditorium,” and it came back a few days later, when a Life magazine aerial photo showed X’s where people had been hit along the route I had just taken.

I had been a little slow in switching over to emergency, but my wits were supposedly about me as I made my way around the back of the auditorium to the Union, where I knew of a stairwell window that afforded a good and, I thought, a safe view of the Tower. The window was wide open, and a girl in a white blouse was already sharing the right-hand side with someone, so I went to the left where only one student was standing and looked over his shoulder. Everyone was talking, and I could hear people downstairs in the Union lobby, babbling in confusion. Someone had come in from outside and was running through the lobby, crying, “That man is dead! That man is dead!” as though such a thing were entirely impossible.

I could see the sniper fairly well; he would lean out over the parapet, bring the rifle to bear on target, fire, tip the weapon up as he worked the action, then walk quickly to another point and do the same thing. It must have been about that time that he hit an electrician next to his truck at Twentieth Street and University Avenue, a quarter of a mile away. It was about that time, too, that the Tower clock started chiming and then, with cold-blooded indifference, tolled the noon hour. And it must have been only moments after those echoes died that the sniper, evidently firing through one of the Tower’s drain spouts, put a shot through the open window where the four of us stood gawking.

The bullet struck the edge of the window opening in front of the girl’s face like an exploding stick of dynamite, filling the stairwell with glass, splinters, bullet fragments, and concrete dust. The blast put us on the floor, and the first thing I perceived was the girl, flat on her back, hands to her face, screaming. Which surprised me; I didn’t think there could be any face left to scream with. I started crawling over to her, and my left hand slipped so that I partly fell forward into blood that was rapidly covering the floor of the stairwell. The blood wasn’t hers; the bullet had fragmented, and a large chunk of it had pierced the right forearm of the guy on my side of the window. It had hit an artery that now, as he lay partly on his side, was pumping out blood in rapid squirts about three inches high.

It’s strange what happens to time in situations like this. All motion slowed down and became dreamlike. I knew how to contend with arterial bleeding, but in the second or two it took me to get my hands to his arm it seemed as if I had ages to consider the neatness of the wound, the brightness of the blood, and its fountain-like behavior. I refused to think another shot might come through that window, because my legs were still exposed. I could still hear the girl’s sobbing, and I could hear my own voice, squawking for someone to give me a handkerchief. The shooting victim used his good arm to pull one from his back pocket and hand it to me.

The girl had debris in her eyes but was otherwise okay. The guy would be okay once he was slid under the window and into the hands of other students who had come running up the stairs. I was okay but pretty blood-splattered and had trouble convincing one Samaritan that the blood was not mine. Except for a tiny bit; while washing up in the basement men’s room, I found that what looked like a shaving cut in my neck held a piece of the bullet’s copper jacket, not much bigger than a pinhead. Realizing that that could have been the large chunk of bullet made it hard to breathe for a little while.

When I went back upstairs, no one had any real idea of what was going on—how many riflemen were up there or if the killings were part of something else that was happening. That feeling was enhanced by the absence of the police. Rarely does a person witness a car wreck or a fire or another emergency except in aftermath, when the scene is swarming with cops and firemen and spectators. To witness an emergency taking place is to realize that the cops don’t come with it. After the first ten or fifteen minutes, I began hearing an occasional siren that ordinarily wouldn’t have signaled anything more than a traffic problem here or an ambulance run there. But the shooting had been under way for nearly half an hour before the sirens of police cars and ambulances became obvious, blending into yelps and howls like a neighborhood full of dogs set off by a passing fire engine. That noise, punctuated by auto horns blown in panic and anger, blanketed the city. To that was soon added the garbled voices of newscasters blaring through more and more transistor radios. At least the radio reports were bringing things into sharper focus, describing a carnage far greater than anyone walking on campus could guess. Those early shots that had caused me more astonishment than alarm had, I now learned, hit their targets nearly every time, all over campus, up and down Guadalupe, at amazing ranges, killing people. Whitman hit running targets, bicycling targets, targets at ranges of up to five hundred yards; he even put a bullet through a light plane carrying a police rifleman. And his field of fire was so great that targets never stopped presenting themselves at distances they mistakenly thought were safe.

And something else incredible was happening. From about noon on, I had been hearing the occasional crack of return fire from the ground. I supposed it to be police, who at last were dashing around, revolvers in hand like pacifiers, looking helplessly officious. A couple of them had riot shotguns, which likewise could not have served much more than the psychological purpose of reducing frustration. But when I walked out the front door of the Union, staying out of Tower range, I felt the concussion of a high-powered rifle firing from somewhere nearby. I thought, “Ah, now we’re getting someplace!” though I wasn’t sure where. Minutes later I saw a man in street clothes with a scoped deer rifle in one hand and an Army surplus ammo can in the other, running in a crouch across Guadalupe toward the back of the architecture building, where he disappeared into bushes. I went back inside to find a safe route to the Academic Center, the only building between the Union and the Tower, and God help me if I didn’t see a middle-aged man in a hunting cap and full camouflage hunting outfit, pockets bulging, standing in the Union’s protected courtyard and squinting up at rooftops, apparently looking for a position from which to shoot. Later I heard some bizarre stories. A member of the Confederate Air Force antique-aircraft club in the Valley supposedly called the Department of Public Safety and offered to head north at full throttle in a World War II fighter, armed with privately owned .50-caliber machine guns. I somehow doubt that, but such a thing would not have been out of the question. Some friends of mine who were glued to a television set in the old San Jacinto Cafe a few blocks southeast of campus said that a man carrying a deer rifle rushed in, bought a six-pack of beer, and rushed back out.

About the only difference between police and citizens that day were uniforms and radios, and some cops had neither. Nobody seemed to know what to do except keep down, and I found out afterward that the officers on campus were angry and frustrated that no helpful suggestions were coming from headquarters, which had not even unlimbered the department’s supply of fairly old .35-caliber rifles, which at least had the range. The only cops with useful weapons were those who went home and got them or those who came from home and brought them. One I knew, Lieutenant Burt Gerding, had headed for the campus with a .30-06 Army Springfield, scoped and sporterized from its World War I configuration, and several bandoliers of Army surplus armor-piercing ammunition. He took up a position on the roof of the business and economics building off the Tower’s southeast corner and doesn’t mind admitting now that before he got sighted in, the first shot went high and put the most conspicuous hole in the Tower clock’s translucent glass face. After that, he hit a bag of cartridges that Whitman had set on the parapet and maybe one of Whitman’s rifles, which appeared to have been struck by an armor-piercing bullet.

The ground fire was picking up, maybe a shot every five or ten seconds, which was causing me to think, “Just what we need—a bunch of loonies lobbing bullets all over the place, killing even more people.” But I noticed that as the ground fire increased, the shots from the Tower came less often. Peeking carefully upward from a corner of the Academic Center, I could see puffs around the Tower’s parapet that were not smoke from the sniper’s guns but bullets striking the soft stone, sometimes knocking out sizable chunks that seemed to waft slowly downward. At one point the shooting picked up in much the same way that kernels of corn begin to pop—sporadically for a time, then more and more often, until all of a sudden the popping blends into a roar before tapering off again.

I was trying to figure out what that barrage was all about when somebody pointed toward the mall in front of the Main Building, where a girl was stranded in the grassy area, squeezed behind the thick base of a flagpole, her face in her hands. A man’s body was lying out there in the sun, cooking on the intensely hot concrete. Through the space between some large shrubbery I glimpsed someone running across the mall, fully exposed to the Tower. I found out later that some students had dashed out into the open, distances of twenty, thirty, maybe forty yards, to pick up the dead and wounded and carry them back out of range. The sniper wasn’t firing because the fusillade from the ground was hitting the Tower’s parapet like a slow-motion discharge from a giant shotgun.

I was watching part of this on live television in the basement of the Academic Center. One of the school’s TV cameras had been rolled outside the door of some building and had been left there, unmanned, zoomed in on the top of the Tower and feeding a TV monitor in the lower level of the Academic Center. That was eerie—seeing the observation deck close up, seeing the little puffs of dust kicked out of the limestone by bullets, with the sound coming not from the TV but from outside, where it all was happening. A reminder of that was a wounded girl stretched out on a table in the same room. No one seemed to be looking after her when I walked in, so I asked if I could do anything or get her anything, and she shock her head no, as if she preferred to be left alone. I turned my attention to the TV and after a few minutes was perversely thinking that this show didn’t have much action. Then, finally, something did happen—a piece of cloth waved briefly above the parapet, signaling the end.

I went outside to see maybe a thousand students emerging from everywhere and stampeding toward the Tower, nearly overwhelming several cops who were trying to keep them back. It crossed my mind that if the signal were a trick, the sniper had just cleverly replenished his supply of targets. But it was over, and I could hear a transistor radio calling for a halt to the ground fire on orders of the police. And now I was on the Academic Center breeze-way, watching the crowd trying to turn itself into a mob, some overadrenalinized students starting to yell obscenities and words like “lynch” and “kill,” as if more of that were needed. I found myself wanting to strike out at them as much as at whatever tortured creature had been in its death throes up in the Tower.

The accounts of Charles Whitman’s death were pretty garbled at the time, and there was no way that those of us on the ground would understand what had just happened on the Tower. After the pilot of the small plane reported only one sniper, it seemed obvious to me that he had knowingly trapped himself, intending to die and to take with him as many others as possible. When the finale came, at about 1:25 p.m., it did so in a stoke that was at once a monument to official disorganization, dumb luck, and great personal courage.

The cops who had made it into the Main Building were trying to control the fairly panicky situation there, while others, deciding they were on their own, had taken the Tower elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, which gave access to the switchback stairs leading two more flights up to the observation level. There they encountered new problems. Whitman, after lugging his gear up to the central reception area, had first killed the middle-aged woman who was well known to the campus for her insistence that everyone sign the visitors’ register and not make jokes about jumping; then he had not killed a sight-seeing couple who came in from the outside walkway. Those two went on out, assuming that the man holding a gun who had cheerily said, “Hi, how are you?” was a school employee preparing to shoot pigeons. But six members of a tourist family who next came up were received with blasts from Whitman’s sawed-off 12-gauge and four of them, two dead, were now lying on the stairs on top of one another in a great bloody mess.

Efforts to help those people and to push through the sniper’s hastily erected barricades of furniture resulted in four men reaching the reception room at the observation level with no plan of action. Whitman was outside and unseen, but the sound of his shots seemed to be coming from the northwest corner of the outside walkway that circumscribed the clock tower. Luckily, that was exactly opposite the doorway leading outside, which was at the southeast corner.

The first man through the door was 29-year-old Ramiro Martinez, an officer who without discussion turned left and began working his way north along the Tower’s east side, armed only with a revolver. Following him was Officer Houston McCoy, 26, armed with a revolver and a riot shotgun. Posted to guard the south side was a civilian, Allen Crum, the 40-year-old floor manager of the University Co-op bookstore who had asked to join the attack party; he was more or less deputized and given a rifle by a policeman downstairs. Joining him moments later was Officer Jerry Day, also acting as rear guard in case the sniper retreated in that direction.

Martinez and McCoy traversed the walkway on the east side of the building one after the other, hopping past drain spouts that were still funneling in bullets from the ground. Then, in a move of terrible courage that might now seem short on wisdom, Martinez leapt from cover and with one hand began firing his revolver at the young man with blondish hair who was backed into the opposite corner, about fifty feet away, holding a semiautomatic Army carbine. The carbine was swinging around to fire when McCoy delivered two bursts of double-aught buckshot to Whitman’s head and neck, making up for the .38 bullets that appeared to be missing their target.

Later, neither cop went beyond a few clichés in trying to describe how it felt to climb over the dead and dying victims of a mass murderer and then confront the madman and his rifle face to face, but the psychic energy it took to do that thing displayed itself in ways that were not fully recorded in police reports. McCoy remembers that his colleague gave a war cry when Whitman was knocked backward by the blasts and that Martinez then slammed his empty revolver to the tiles, grabbed a shotgun from McCoy’s hands, and ran to the still-jerking body to fire point-blank into its heart. After that he threw the shotgun down too hard to suit its owner and ran, shouting for the shooting to stop, toward the others on the walkway, who recognized him in time. Martinez doesn’t recall being so rough on the guns but admits he was a bit rattled at the time and needed a hand getting back to the police station. That night he hid from the press at his brother’s house, drinking an entire bottle of gin without—he said later—feeling its effects. McCoy stayed crouched by the body, searching it for identification, and spoke to it, warning it that if its spreading pool of blood ruined his boots he was going to heave it over the side. He likewise avoided reporters and spent the evening drinking.

Since neither cop claimed personal credit for killing Whitman, it went by default to Martinez, who was found more newsworthy by reporters pleased to have a genuine minority hero. He was widely honored and ended up a Texas Ranger, now stationed in New Braunfels. McCoy quickly faded from the picture and today works at a Boy Scout camp near Menard.

It took time for the magnitude of August 1, 1966, to sink in and for the press to sort out what had happened. You don’t get the biggest mass murder in the country’s history very often, and whether this one qualified depended somewhat on definitions. Even the body count hinged upon the theological issue of a fetus that was killed but whose mother survived, and then there was the matter of Whitman’s mother and wife, whom he had killed the previous night. Counting the latter and the fetus, the final toll came to 16 dead and 31 wounded, though it was possible that one or two others were treated for minor wounds at the height of confusion and did not make the list. That Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student, was discovered to be a former altar boy and Eagle Scout provided delicious irony—the ugly duckling tale in reverse. That his marksmanship was astounding could be attributed to good Marine Corps training. Superficially he presented the image of a happily married college student and an all-American boy from the proverbial good family. But on closer examination, it turned out that his marriage wasn’t happy, his family situation was thoroughly screwed-up, and Whitman was a driven, pill-popping, self-flogging bully and all-around psycho with a talent for concealing it.

Exactly why Whitman snapped (and that seems to be the word) can never be known, but in the preceding weeks he had talked to a university psychiatrist about the emotional strain he was under, pressures that were building up, and his increasingly violent impulses, which apparently began to surface (or resurface) with the breakup of his parents’ marriage a few months earlier. “I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come [sic] overwhelming violent impulses,” Whitman wrote in a letter. “After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”

In fact, Whitman had told the psychiatrist that his urge was to go up on the Tower with a rifle and begin killing people. That was dismissed as fantasy, since thoughts of the Tower were not uncommon in the minds of troubled students, the doctor told a press conference the next day. I’m sure that’s true, but I attended the press conference and was interested to see that the psychiatrist was the same one whom my wife and I had consulted independently a few months earlier when a pending divorce was causing us both some serious depression. My visit consisted mainly of listening to him talk on the telephone with the driller who was putting in a water well on his ranch, after which he gave me a prescription for Librium. My wife came back from her visit crying and said that after pretty much baring her soul, his advice to her was “Grow up.” I won’t hazard a guess as to what comfort and advice he gave Charles Whitman.

Whitman professed hatred for his rigid and authoritarian father in Florida, just as he expressed deep love for his wife and mother—feelings he described in remarkably lucid and introspective notes written the previous evening in the course of killing them both. In a letter dated “Sunday, July 31, 1966, 6:45 P.M.” before his first step was even taken, the mixture of past and present tense suggest that a final decision had been made very recently by a compulsive man who placed great importance on following through:

I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. …

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embrassment [sic] of my actions would surely cause her. AT this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.

Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. …

At about that point in the letter, with his mother still alive in her apartment across town, Whitman remained true to his tightly scripted personality by scribbling in the margin, “Friends interrupted.” The friends, a student and his wife, later described Whitman as acting “particularly relieved about something—you know, as if he had solved a problem.” And he had. The exact nature of Whitman’s madness is open to speculation—there were many family factors and possibly religious ones; there was a report of a small brain tumor whose possible effects are disputed. But most students of the mind would agree that he resolved some intolerable psychological conflict by turning over to his personal demon all responsibility for his actions and placing his skills at its disposal. With that came, evidently, the kind of relief psychiatrists and criminologists sometimes see in prisoners for whom a single but exceptionally brutal killing has been the safety valve gone pop! Afterward those people confront their fate with an equanimity bordering on apathy. For them, death is only a further release—possibly the one they unconsciously sought all along but without Whitman’s ability to turn it all into a prolonged drama. He returned to the letter and scribbled the matter-of-fact notation “8-1-66. Mon. 3:00 A.M. Both Dead.”

Whitman spent the rest of the night and the next morning readying himself to depart life in a style reflecting the pressures that had been building for months, maybe years. He had several guns but bought two more, plus ammunition, without arousing suspicion, chatting amiably with clerks. Then he dressed in overalls, parked his car near the Main Building sometime after eleven in the morning, giving the appearance of a maintenance man, dollied a duffel bag and a footlocker crammed with ordnance and supplies to the observation deck of the Tower. His encounter with the receptionist and the tourists may have caused him to miss the changing of classes at eleven, when the campus below him would have looked like a busy ant bed. About eleven-forty-five he fired his first shot from the parapet. An hour and a half later, he was killed.

I saw Whitman when they brought him out. When the shooting was over, my journalistic instincts revived, and I went to one of the back doors of the Main Building to avoid the crowd. The police, likewise avoiding the crowds at other doors, wheeled out a stretcher bearing the sniper’s body under a blood-soaked sheet. My sense of time may be off, but it seemed as if they brought their bundle out quickly, as if they wanted it out of there before the mob could get to it.

I finished school in 1968, left Austin, and since then have worked in other cities, but the memories of that day are as lasting as the proofmarks on the barrel of a gun. I come back to Austin to visit friends and family, and I visit the UT campus often enough that it no longer affects me to walk around there, though I occasionally find myself idly figuring out the least-exposed route from one building to another. I don’t actually go that way, of course. And I don’t give more than a moment’s thought to the things I saw and did that day. But if I’m walking from the Main Building across that wide concrete mall, say, or along one of the inner-campus drives, I can’t quite shake an ever so slightly uneasy feeling that the Tower, somehow, is watching me.

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