96 Minutes

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower and started firing—and the rest, literally, is history. Here’s what happened on that fateful day, in the words of more than three dozen people who got shot, fired back, lost loved ones, saved lives by risking their own, and otherwise witnessed the nation’s first mass murder in a public place.
Photograph by Dan Winters

On the morning of August 1, 1966, not long before summer classes at the University of Texas at Austin were about to let out for lunch, an architectural engineering major named Charles Whitman arrived at the Tower dressed as a maintenance man. He would be described the following day in the Austin American as “a good son, a top Boy Scout, an excellent Marine, an honor student, a hard worker, a loving husband, a fine scout master, a handsome man, a wonderful friend to all who knew him—and an expert sniper.” The footlocker he wheeled behind him contained three rifles, two pistols, and a sawed-off shotgun, as well as a cache of supplies (among them canned peaches, deodorant, an alarm clock, binoculars, toilet paper, a machete, and sweet rolls) that suggested he planned to stay awhile. After a receptionist switched on an elevator that Whitman had been trying in vain to operate, he smiled and said, “Thank you, ma’am. You don’t know how happy that makes me.”

Whitman rode the elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, dragged his footlocker up the stairs to the observation deck, and introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space. Before 9/ 11, before Columbine, before the Oklahoma City bombing, before “going postal” was a turn of phrase, the 25-year-old ushered in the notion that any group of people, anywhere—even walking around a university campus on a summer day—could be killed at random by a stranger. The crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks, from Twentieth to Twenty-fifth streets, bounded by Guadalupe (“the Drag”) to the west and Speedway to the east, and covered the nerve center of what was then a relatively small, quiet college town. 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.

Both the Associated Press and United Press International would rank the shootings as the second most important story of the year, behind only the war in Vietnam. But until 1999, when the university dedicated a memorial garden near the Tower to the victims, the only physical reminder on campus of what had taken place were the few remaining bullet holes left in its limestone walls. (Many of the original scars had, over the years, been filled in with plaster.) No plaques had ever been displayed, no list of names read, no memorial services held. Decades of institutional silence had turned the shootings, and Whitman himself, into the answers to trivia questions. But, of course, there was nothing at all trivial about that day.

To mark the fortieth anniversary of that day, we asked the people who were there to tell their stories.

“THERE’S A SNIPER UP ON THE TOWER AND HE’S SHOOTING PEOPLE!”

Whitman’s first shot was fired at 11:48 a.m.

SHELTON WILLIAMS was a senior at UT. He is the director of the Osgood Center for International Studies, in Washington, D.C.
It was a few minutes to noon, and I was driving down the Drag in my brand-new red 1966 Mustang. My sister-in-law was visiting from Midland, and I was kind of showing off Austin to her. It was a bright, sunshiny day. I remember “Monday, Monday,” by the Mamas and the Papas, playing on the radio. We got to the stoplight that’s right there outside of the University Co-op Bookstore, and that’s when I heard it. A lot of people thought it was a car backfiring or a sound they just couldn’t discern. I attribute this to the fact that I’m from West Texas, but I knew immediately that it was gunshots.

JOHN PIPKIN was a senior. He is a retired money manager in Houston.
A couple of buddies and I had gone down to Scholz Garten to get lunch before we had to go to work that afternoon. We were eating sandwiches when some guy busts open the door and jumps up on the bar and starts screaming for everybody’s attention. He’s yelling, “You gotta hear what I’m saying! There’s a sniper up on the Tower and he’s shooting people!” Everybody in the place starts laughing and saying, “Yeah, right—a sniper on the Tower. Let’s drink to the sniper!” So everybody raises their beers and makes a big joke out of it. The guy says, “No, I’m serious. There’s a sniper up on the Tower and he’s shooting people!” And about that time, we started to hear sirens.

BRENDA BELL was a junior. She is an assistant features editor at the Austin American-Statesman.
The anti-war movement wasn’t very big yet on campus when this happened. The guys still had short haircuts and the girls had flips. We were right at the end of that era, with the Peter Pan collars and the circle pins and the Pappagallo shoes and the fraternity and sorority parties. Random violence and mass murder wasn’t something we knew. If this happened now, there would almost be a feeling of having seen it before. But we had no reference point then. We weren’t even scared at first. We were just wildly curious. I was in Shakespeare class when it started, and we all ran to the windows of the English building, which is now Parlin Hall, and stood there peering out over each other’s shoulders.

CLAIRE JAMES was a freshman. She teaches elementary and junior high school in Tucson, Arizona.
My boyfriend, Tom Eckman, and I were drinking coffee at the Chuck Wagon when we decided that we’d better put another nickel in the parking meter. We were walking across the South Mall, holding hands, when all of a sudden I felt like I’d stepped on a live wire, like I’d been electrocuted. I was eight months pregnant at the time. Tom said, “Baby—” and reached out for me. And then he was hit.

MICHAEL HALL was a history professor. Now retired, he lives in Austin.
There was a loud crack outside

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