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.
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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 Garrison Hall that sounded like a rifle shot. I went outside to see what was going on, and I saw a body lying there on the cement in the middle of the mall, in the very bright sunlight. To my left, there were three live oak trees, magnificent specimens with very large trunks. A young man was crouched down behind one of them, his fingertips touching the bark, terrified, staring up at the Tower.
DAVID BAYLESS JR. was a freshman. He sells insurance in Denison.
I ran toward Batts Hall, and I’d just gotten inside when the bell rang. People started pouring out of classrooms; it was lunchtime and everyone was in a hurry. I held my arms out and tried to block the doors that led out onto the South Mall. I didn’t scream or holler. I just said, “Don’t go out there. Someone’s shooting people.” But no one believed me. They looked at me like I was a dumb kid and pushed right past.
CLAIRE JAMES: Tom never said another word. I was lying next to him on the pavement, and I called out to him, but I knew he was dead. The shock was so great that I didn’t feel pain; it felt more like something really heavy was pressing down on me. A conservative-looking guy in a suit walked by, and I yelled at him, “Please, get a doctor! Please!” even though I still didn’t understand what was happening. He looked annoyed and said, “Get up! What do you think you’re doing?” I think he thought it was guerrilla theater, because we had started doing things like that to bring attention to the war in Vietnam.
BOB HIGLEY was a junior. He is the managing director of an investment firm in Houston.
To me, the university had always seemed like an idyllic place that was separate from the rest of the world. It was devoted to ideas and learning. You could say whatever you wanted to say; you could be provocative if you wanted to. The campus was smaller then, and the student body was nearly half the size it is now, so there was a real sense of community. It was shocking to me that one person, a fellow student, could ruin all that so quickly. He was killing indiscriminately, aiming wherever he saw targets—riding their bicycles, looking out windows, walking down the Drag.
GAYLE ROSS was a junior. She is records supervisor at the Plano Police Department.
I knew this was no ordinary day. It had that same feeling of time isolated, of before and after, that the Kennedy assassination had. My reaction was “Oh, no, not again.” You knew that after this day, this moment, nothing would ever be quite the same again. There was a quality of suspended animation. Normal life had stopped, and for this little space of time, everything revolved around the Tower and that man.
“… HE SEEMED LIKE A NICE, CLEAN-CUT, ALL-AMERICAN KIND OF GUY.”
By three o’clock on the morning of the shootings, Whitman had stabbed and strangled his mother, Margaret, in her apartment and stabbed his wife, Kathy, in their bed as she slept. In the half-typed, half-handwritten letter he left on Kathy’s body, he wrote, “Lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts … I talked with a doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses [sic]. 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. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder … Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.”
DAVE MCNEELY was a reporter in the Houston Chronicle’s Capitol bureau. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist in Austin.
I met Charles Whitman that summer at his birthday party. I was there by virtue of the fact that the lead guitar player in my rock band was a close friend of his. Whitman was blond, good-looking, solidly built. I remember he seemed like a nice, clean-cut, all-American kind of guy. I was really sort of stunned when I heard the news.
BARTON RILEY was an instructor in architectural engineering. A retired architect, he lives in Kerrville.
Charlie was one of my students. He didn’t have many friends, but he and I had both been in the Marine Corps, and we got along pretty good. From what I understood, his father was a rather crude man and had kicked him around a bit. Charlie felt tremendous anger toward him. When he came to the university, he wanted to excel; he wanted to show his father up. He felt that he had to make A’s, and if he didn’t, he was very hard on himself.
SHELTON WILLIAMS: I had a class that spring in the architecture building, and I was always compulsively early. So was another guy, Charlie, whose last name I didn’t know until I saw his picture in the paper. He always chewed on his fingernails while he read over his notes. I’d never seen anyone work so vigorously on their fingernails; I couldn’t believe there was anything left to chew. I remember a kid walked up to him once and said, “Say, Charlie, are you going to go to Vietnam and kill Charlie?” The kid thought that was hilarious. Whitman said, “The Marines can kiss my red-white-and-blue ass.”
BARTON RILEY: Charlie called me at eleven o’clock one night and said, “I need to see you.” I said, “Now?” and he said yes. So I turned the porch light on and waited for him. He was one of those guys who got red-faced when he was upset, and he was very flushed when he walked in the door. He was carrying an architectural drawing that I suppose he wanted to show me, but the moment he saw that I had a baby grand in my living room, he dropped his papers, sat down, and played “Claire de Lune.” It’s a fairly tough little tune to play, but he did it beautifully. Then he played something else, though I don’t remember what. When all that red had drained out of his face, he stood up. I said, “Well, I’ll see you in class tomorrow, Charlie.” He said, “Okay,” and left.
GARY LAVERGNE is the author of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders.
Whitman had been thinking about doing this for a while. In early September of 1961 he was standing on the seventh-floor balcony of the Goodall Wooten dorm, looking at the Tower, when he turned to a friend and said, “You know, that would be a great place to go up with a rifle and shoot people. You could hold off an army for as long as you wanted.” He wasn’t like you or me; instead of seeing the Tower, he saw a fortress. Instead of rain spouts, he saw gun turrets. It never occurred to his friend that he might be serious.
“WE WALKED OUT ONTO THE OBSERVATION DECK AND ENJOYED THE VIEW …”
The day before the shootings, a teenager from Rockdale named Cheryl Botts (now Cheryl Dickerson) came to Austin to visit her grandmother. When she arrived at the Greyhound station, she met UT student Don Walden, and they struck up a conversation. Walden offered to show her around campus the next day on his motorcycle, and she accepted. They arrived at the Tower the following morning, not long before Whitman took control of the observation deck. The Gabours, a family visiting from Texarkana, arrived soon after.
CHERYL DICKERSON was a freshman at Howard Payne University, in Brownwood. She is a textbook consultant in Luling.
We walked out onto the observation deck and enjoyed the view on all four sides, looking down at the whole city. I grew up in a very small town, so the thing that impressed me was how big everything was. I mean, there were buildings and highways for as far as you could see; it just went on and on, and it was so beautiful. We looked around for at least a half an hour. We didn’t know much about each other, so we did a lot of visiting too.
DAVID MATTSON was a Peace Corps trainee living in Austin. A retired teacher, he lives in Hastings, Minnesota.
I’m reminded of the article that was in Time magazine a week or two later that compared the shootings to Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In the book, people from all walks of life were, for various reasons, drawn together by fate to a critical time and place in space. Everyone was there for a different reason when the bridge, which spans a gorge in Peru, collapses and they fall to their deaths.
CHERYL DICKERSON: We stepped back inside, and I noticed that the receptionist was not at her desk, but I just assumed she had gone to lunch. The next thing I saw was this reddish-brown swath that we had to step over. My instinct—I mean, I’m a naive small-town girl, okay? I had a rationalization for everything—was that someone was about to varnish the floor. So we stepped over it, and immediately to our right, a blond guy stood up. We had surprised him, apparently. He was bending over the couch, and we found out later that he had put the receptionist’s body there and that she was still alive at that time. He turned around to face us, and he had a rifle in each hand. Don thought—I know this sounds crazy—that he was there to shoot pigeons. So I smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and he smiled back at me and said, “Hi.” All of this took about fifteen seconds; we never stopped walking. We walked to the stairwell and went down one floor to the elevator. I figured out later when I read the newspaper that while we were going down in one elevator, the Gabours must have been coming up in the other.
MICHAEL GABOUR was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He owns a radio station in Port Douglas, Australia.
After getting off the elevator, we began the climb to the observation deck. A desk had been pulled across the doorway at the top of the stairs, so I volunteered to go up and inquire whether or not the observation deck was closed. My brother, my aunt, and my mother followed slightly farther behind. As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw a pretty-good-sized blond dude wearing aviator shades running toward me. The barrel of what looked like a sawed-off automatic twelve-gauge shotgun was coming up to firing position. In nanoseconds my brain tried to process the images for a response. I had just started to turn toward my family when the first blast caught my left shoulder. I’m not sure if it was that round, or one of the many subsequent ones, that killed my brother and my aunt.
HERB RITCHIE was a sophomore. He is a criminal defense lawyer in Houston.
I was in the classics department, on the highest floor of the Tower, just below the observation deck, helping an assistant professor catalog some cards for his dissertation. There was a really loud noise that sounded like filing cabinets had fallen down the stairs. Professor Mench ran to the stairwell and went up the steps a partial distance. He came running back and said, “There are bodies in the stairwell.”
MICHAEL GABOUR: I regained consciousness when my father tried to pull me down the blood-filled hallway. I told him to go for help, and he did. I tried to escape but realized that I was unable to move my left leg. I became aware that my mother was still alive, so I kept her that way by not letting her drift away.
HERB RITCHIE: We barricaded ourselves inside an office in the classics department. I put a rolling blackboard up against the door, and we shoved a desk up against that. There were about eight of us, including two nuns. One of the sisters talked about the poor, twisted soul up there who was shooting people, and I thought that was a nice attitude to have, but from where I was sitting, I could see the bodies lying on the mall. I didn’t have much sympathy for whoever was up there shooting. I didn’t have much sympathy at all.
“… HE WAS SHOOTING AND KILLING PEOPLE A LONG WAY OFF, ALL UP AND DOWN THE DRAG.”
In the first few minutes of Whitman’s killing spree, many students were unaware of what was happening; some thought it was the work of drama students or an experiment being performed by the psychology department or just a joke. Claire Wilson (now Claire James) found herself stranded on the South Mall, eight months pregnant and hit in the abdomen. She and other victims lay where they had fallen on the hot cement and tried to play dead. But Whitman never shot again once he had hit his target. In the sniper tradition of “one shot, one kill,” he never wasted a bullet on someone who was down.
CLAIRE JAMES: I didn’t know it at the time, but I was losing a lot of blood; I felt like I was melting. The heat was just deadly. The pavement was so hot that it was burning the backs of my legs.
DAVID MATTSON: I was walking with two other Peace Corps volunteers, Roland Ehlke and Tom Herman, down the Drag; we were headed to Sheftall’s jewelers, because I needed to get my watch fixed. We’d had a water fight at our dorm the night before, and I’d gotten water under the crystal. I was showing my friends my watch—I had stopped and was holding my hand up by my head, at eye level—when all of a sudden my hand came crashing down. The terrific force of it spun me around, and when I looked down, I saw that part of my wrist had been blown away. Ehlke was bleeding too. The manager inside Sheftall’s pulled us into the store, and we crawled on our hands and knees behind the display cases.
ANN MAJOR was a senior. She is a romance novelist living in Corpus Christi.
I went down to the basement of Parlin Hall, and people were panicking. We listened to the radio and realized he was shooting and killing people a long way off, all up and down the Drag. I remember hearing the radio announcer say he had shot a boy off his bicycle near the Night Hawk restaurant, several blocks away.
KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON was a law student. She is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.
I was in class when the shooting began. We were told that there was a shooter in the Tower, and we watched from the front lawn of the law school. We could see the smoke from the gun each time it fired, although we did not know at the time that he was marking innocent people.
BILL HELMER was a graduate student in American history. He is a historical-crime writer living in Boerne.
I made my way to the east window in the Texas Union stairwell and was more or less marveling at this nut on the Tower until a shot came in through the open window and hit the arm of the guy beside me. Then I got a wee bit rattled. I thought, “Son of a bitch! This guy is good.”
JOHN PIPKIN: He was picking people off at incredible distances and hitting them where he could do the most damage. I heard about a guy who was eating a sandwich in the front yard of the Kappa house, minding his own business, when he was shot through the chest.
GARY LAVERGNE: The farthest casualty was well over five hundred yards away, at the A&E Barber Shop, on the Drag. A basketball coach named Billy Snowden saw what was happening on the news and got out of the barber’s chair to get a better look. He was standing in the doorway, with his smock still on, when he was shot in the shoulder.
CLAIRE JAMES: A really lovely young woman with red hair ran up to me and said, “Please, let me help you.” I told her to get down so she wouldn’t attract attention, and she lay down next to me. It was a beautiful, selfless act. I told her my name and my blood type, and she made sure to keep me talking so I wouldn’t lose consciousness. She stayed with me for at least an hour, until people came and carried me away.
DAVID MATTSON: We thought that perhaps Sheftall’s was being robbed, so Tom Herman and I locked ourselves in the back lavatory. It was sheer terror not knowing if we would be able to escape or if someone was going to come back there and finish us off. A policeman finally pounded on the back door and said, “There’s an ambulance just a couple of doors down, so make a run for it.” By the time we got to the ambulance, the driver had been shot. He was laid out in the back. We squeezed in beside him, and the policeman took us to the hospital, driving down alleys and using buildings for cover.
ROBERT HEARD was a reporter for the Associated Press. Now a nonfiction writer, he lives in Austin.
Ernie Stromberger, of the Dallas Times Herald, and I drove to campus and parked behind two highway patrolmen who were putting together their shotguns. We figured they were headed for the Tower, so we started following them. When they ran across Twenty-fourth Street, Ernie stayed put; I followed, a few seconds behind them. Just before I reached the curb, I was shot down. I’d forgotten my Marine training; I hadn’t zigzagged. It felt like someone had hit my shoulder with a brick. I staggered another three yards and fell in the street.
JOHN ECONOMIDY was a senior and the editor of the Daily Texan. He is a criminal defense lawyer in San Antonio.
I saw an ambulance round the corner by Hogg Auditorium and stop for two students who had been shot. Both kids had chest wounds and were bleeding through their mouths and noses. I tried to help load them in, and then I took off for the Texan. When I ran into the newsroom, I saw a couple of my photographers just standing there, looking through the venetian blinds. I said, “Get off your butts. Get out there and win the Pulitzer Prize!”
ROBERT HEARD: As soon as I hit the pavement, I sat up. I was wearing a white shirt and blood was cascading down it. Some people in the Biological Sciences Building yelled, “Lie down! Lie down!” Either they or another group of students—I never knew who they were—ran out into the street, knowing they could be shot, and dragged me under the trunk of a Studebaker. Ernie Stromberger called in to the Times Herald and said, “Tell the people at the AP that they no longer have a man on the job.”
HARPER SCOTT CLARK was a junior. He is the Killeen bureau reporter for the Temple Daily Telegram.
I went to Scholz’s at around 12:10 or so, and it was packed. There was a black and white TV running in a corner of the main barroom. Everyone was standing around with their mugs and pitchers because there was nowhere to sit. There was a businessman standing near me—your typical good old boy in cowboy boots and pressed jeans and Western-style shirt—and he said, “Well, I hope they get him off that Tower pretty quick, because the anti-gun people are going to go crazy over this.”
“IT SEEMED LIKE EVERY OTHER GUY HAD A RIFLE.”
Students waited and waited for the police to arrive. The shootings would spur the creation of SWAT teams across the country, but at that time, the Austin Police Department had no tactical unit to deploy. Its officers had only service revolvers and shotguns, which were useless against a sniper whose perch was hundreds of yards away. Communication with headquarters was difficult, with few handheld radios, and the phone system was jammed across the city. Some officers went home to get their rifles; others directed traffic away from campus. In the absence of any visible police presence, students decided to defend themselves.
JAMES DAMON was a graduate student in comparative literature. A retired real estate investor, he lives in Austin.
My wife was six months pregnant, and she was stuck on the fourth floor of the Tower, in the stacks. I looked around and didn’t see any police, so I went home and got my gun. It was an M1 carbine, which I’d bought for $15 when I was discharged from the Army. I went to the top of the new Academic Center and tried to keep out of sight. That was the closest I could get. I only saw him once, long enough to take aim, but from time to time I would shoot over the ledge of the observation deck and try to hit him.
CLIF DRUMMOND was a senior and the student body president. He is a high-tech executive in Austin.
Students with deer rifles were leaning up against telephone poles, using the pole, which is rather narrow, as their shield. And they were firing like crazy back at the Tower.
FORREST PREECE was a junior. A retired advertising executive, he lives in Austin.
I saw two guys in white shirts and slacks running across the lawn of the Pi Phi house, hustling up to its porch with rifles at the ready. Someone was yelling, “Keep down, man. Keep down!”
BRENDA BELL: I don’t know where these vigilantes came from, but they took over Parlin Hall and were crashing around, firing guns. There was massive testosterone.
J. M. COETZEE was a Ph.D. candidate in English literature and linguistics. A novelist who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for literature, he lives in Adelaide, Australia.
I hadn’t fully comprehended that lots of people around me in Austin not only owned guns but had them close at hand and regarded themselves as free to use them.
BILL HELMER: I remember thinking, “All we need is a bunch of idiots running around with rifles.” But what they did turned out to be brilliant. Once he could no longer lean over the edge and fire, he was much more limited in what he could do. He had to shoot through those drain spouts, or he had to pop up real fast and then dive down again. That’s why he did most of his damage in the first twenty minutes.
JOHN PIPKIN: I’d left Scholz’s and was sitting across the street from the Chi Omega house when this Texas Ranger walked up carrying a pair of binoculars and a rifle with a scope on it. For some reason, he picked me out of the group of kids sitting on the curb. He said, “Son, you ever done any hunting?” And I said, “Yes, sir, I’ve been hunting all my life.” He said, “Well, take these binoculars. I need for you to calibrate me.” And I said, “Okay.” Whitman would stick his rifle out through one of these drainpipes on the observation deck every once in a while and shoot at someone. The ranger would shoot back, and I’d say, “You’re an inch too high,” or “Bring it over to the left a couple inches.”
BILL HELMER: A friend of mine was glued to the TV at the San Jacinto Cafe, near campus, when a guy with a deer rifle ran in, grabbed a six-pack of beer, and ran back out.
ANN MAJOR: It seemed like every other guy had a rifle. There was a sort of cowboy atmosphere, this “Let’s get him” spirit.
JOHN PIPKIN: I was looking through the binoculars when all of a sudden I thought to myself, “Gosh, he’s pointing that rifle at me.” It was like I could see up inside the barrel of the rifle, from four hundred yards away. The next thing I knew, I could feel bullets grazing the top of the hair on my head. The ranger said, “Boy, we got his attention now.” I was absolutely terrified. I dropped the binoculars and scrambled around behind a tree, and then a car. I sat there and panted, thinking how close I’d come to being shot. The ranger said, “You okay, son?” I said, “I guess. I’m alive.” He said, “Yeah, that was pretty close.” And I said, “Yes, sir, it was too close. I think I’m done with my spotting.”
“THAT WAS THE MOMENT THAT SEPARATED THE BRAVE PEOPLE FROM THE SCARED PEOPLE.”
An armored car was used to evacuate some of the victims, but many had to lie in the line of fire for an hour or longer. EMS did not exist yet; ambulances were still run by local funeral homes, and drivers did their best that afternoon to treat the injured without getting killed themselves. Many students risked their own lives to help wounded strangers like patrolman Billy Speed, who lay dying on the South Mall.
BRENDA BELL: We were holed up in Parlin Hall when Billy Speed was shot, and he was close enough that I could have thrown my pencil on him. A couple of students crept out the back door and made their way to him. A girl took off her slip and used it to try to stanch the bleeding, but he was bleeding a lot. The guy who was with her had gotten a little tin cup and filled it with water. It was just like in the cowboy movies, right? You give the guy a drink of water from a tin cup and you rip up a sheet and you try to bind the wound. That was the moment that separated the brave people from the scared people. I realized that there was no way that I was going out there to help him. I didn’t want to get shot. That was a defining moment, because I realized I was a coward.
BOB HIGLEY: Clif Drummond and I wanted to see if there was anything we could do to help. We took an interior stairwell down to the bottom floor of the Texas Union and exited on the Drag. A lot of kids were standing there, hugging that west wall pretty good. Across the street was a student sitting against a parking meter, obviously wounded, his head slumped over. We later learned his name was Paul Sonntag. Nobody was going over to help him. Drummond said something to the effect of “Let’s go get him.” We looked each other in the eye and had a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kind of moment. I said, “Are you going first or am I?”
CLIF DRUMMOND: It looked like a very long way across that street at the time, I’ll tell you. There was essentially abject silence except for the sound of the shooting echoing off the limestone. There was zero traffic. In fact, cars were sitting out in the middle of the Drag with their doors hanging open, motors running, no one in them.
BOB HIGLEY: Drummond led out. I went one or two steps behind him, and if he moved left, I moved more to the right, and we went straight across the Drag.
CLIF DRUMMOND: We got shot at as we crossed the street, but he missed. I remember the pavement flicking, bursting, as bullets were hitting it.
BOB HIGLEY: We got across the street and lay down behind a car for cover. We worked our way up, on our bellies, to Sonntag. Drummond felt for a pulse and couldn’t find one. Sonntag’s fingers were totally blue. I pulled him in close, and his head rolled over, and that’s when I saw he had been hit right in the mouth. He must have heard the gunshot and turned to look over his shoulder at the Tower as he was walking down the Drag.
CLIF DRUMMOND: A person we didn’t know in a station wagon—someone crazier than us—came wheeling around Twenty-fourth Street and roared to a stop in front of us. He got out and opened the rear doors and pulled out a gurney. We loaded Sonntag onto that gurney, and it was really difficult because he was deadweight. The cognition kicked in right then, and I remember thinking to myself, “This is really damned serious.” We had a dead guy on our hands, and we were standing still in an open place as we loaded him in.
BOB HIGLEY: There was no zigging, no zagging to be done. We were sitting ducks. It was right then that my fear gave way to anger, just pure anger. The whole thing was so unfair. I was still thinking that Sonntag had been badly wounded, that he was capable of being resuscitated. I couldn’t have gone on if I’d thought, “Gee, we just recovered the body of a dead student.” I couldn’t allow myself to believe that this kid was dead.
NEAL SPELCE was the news director for KTBC-TV. A retired anchorman, he lives in Spicewood.
Our radio news director, Joe Roddy, went to Brackenridge Hospital and read the names off the first list of casualties. As soon as he finished, Paul Bolton, who was back in the newsroom, grabbed the microphone and said, “Joe, hold it.” Bolton was the very first television news anchor in Austin, a good friend of LBJ’s. He was a gruff, hard-boiled newsman, but you could hear that his voice was wavering. He said, “I think you have my grandson on there. Go over that list of names again, please.” Well, his grandson was Paul Sonntag. His full name, we later found out, was Paul Bolton Sonntag—his namesake. Joe read through the list again, and Bolton pretty much broke down in the newsroom.
“THE EMERGENCY ROOM LOOKED LIKE SOMETHING YOU’D SEE IN VIETNAM.”
Thirty-nine of Whitman’s victims were taken to the emergency room of Brackenridge Hospital in the span of ninety minutes. The first victim arrived at 12:12 p.m., and patients continued arriving at the rate of one every two minutes for the first hour.
ROBERT HEARD: I don’t remember being unloaded from the ambulance. The only thing I remember is waking up on a cot on the lower floor of Brackenridge. There was blood everywhere. The doctors and nurses were slipping as they scurried across the floor.
CAMILLE CLAY was a nursing supervisor at Brackenridge. Now retired, she lives in Austin.
The emergency room looked like something you’d see in Vietnam. I had never seen anything like it in my life, and I never want to see anything like it again.
HOWARD HUGHES was an intern at the hospital. He is a physician at the University of Texas Health Center in Austin.
The casualties came pouring in. Initially there were only ten interns, two surgical residents, and our supervisor. Many of the wounds were bleeding out quickly, so we shouted back and forth, trying to decide which patients should go to the operating rooms first and doing whatever we could to stabilize the gunshot victims. There was blood everywhere, patients in the halls, not enough operating tables or available doctors.
PATSY GERMAN was a graduate student in history. A retired teacher, she lives in Richardson.
I remember the nauseating feeling when they kept reporting the death toll on TV. We all went to the blood bank near Brackenridge, and the lines of cars went on for what seemed like miles. Kids lined up on the median to donate blood.
CAMILLE CLAY: It was a horribly hot day. And some of the kids that had been shot and had to lie out on the cement for a while had first- and second-degree burns.
HOWARD HUGHES: Many of the victims seemed to have well-placed shots through the chest, with the exception of the pregnant lady, who was shot in the abdomen.
CLAIRE JAMES: I knew immediately that I’d lost the baby. By the eighth month, your baby’s moving a lot. And after I got shot, the baby never moved.
CAMILLE CLAY: We put the victims who we believed to be deceased in one room, on the floor. You just couldn’t believe it, all those dead teenagers lying on the floor. They were shoulder to shoulder, with just enough room to step between them. We started trying to identify them. You see, they didn’t come in with their wallets and purses and things. One in particular I remember was a boy who was wearing a class ring from Austin High School that was engraved with his initials. I called the principal and asked him to pull the records for the class of 1966.
ROBERT PAPE was the hospital’s director of medical education. A retired physician, he lives in Seguin.
Doctors who were experienced in trauma started arriving at the hospital and offering to do whatever needed to be done. General practitioners, psychiatrists, dermatologists came too. Fifty-eight doctors signed the ledger in the emergency room and volunteered their help.
CAMILLE CLAY: There were a lot of hysterical people trying to get into the emergency room. Finally the police had to go outside and put up a barricade.
ROBERT HEARD: The AP sent its Austin correspondent, a reporter named Garth Jones, to my hospital room. Garth Jones couldn’t write home for money. But he faithfully took down the notes I gave him. He came to my room and he stood over against the wall, and I recounted what happened to me. The story was only about seven or eight inches long, but it ran around the world.
“THE SNIPER STARTED GOING DOWN …”
Police officer Ramiro Martinez was at home, off duty, and cooking himself a steak for lunch when he turned on the TV and saw KTBC’s noon news bulletin. He immediately called in to the police department and was told by a lieutenant to find an intersection by the university where he could work traffic. Martinez put on his uniform, jumped in his 1954 Chevrolet, and drove to campus. When he saw that there were more than enough officers directing traffic away from the university, he decided to head for the Tower.
RAMIRO MARTINEZ was a patrolman for the Austin Police Department. A retired Texas Ranger, he lives in New Braunfels.
When I reached the South Mall, I could see people hiding behind trees and hedges. There were wounded people, dead people, people whose conditions I did not know lying on the sidewalk. There was a pregnant woman who was twisting, wilting, in the hot sun. I ran as fast as I could, zigzagging toward the Tower, and somehow made it without getting shot.
A security guard was sitting inside, and I asked if I could borrow his handheld radio. I tried all the channels, but I couldn’t make contact with the department. I tried the phone, but the lines were jammed; all I got was a busy signal. At that point, I decided that I needed to get upstairs. My training in the Army had taught me that when you encounter a situation like this, you establish a command post right away. Then you organize an assault team. I figured I just needed to get upstairs and find out what the game plan was.
I got on the elevator and pressed the button for the twenty-seventh floor. By that time I was starting to feel pretty uneasy, because I wasn’t seeing any other officers. As a Catholic, I was taught to ask the good Lord for forgiveness if I thought my life might be in danger. And so as I was going up in the elevator, watching those little numbers light up, I decided to say an Act of Contrition. Then I pulled out my .38 and pointed it at the elevator doors. I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got to the top of the Tower.
When the elevator doors opened, police officer Jerry Day and a civilian named Allen Crum were facing me holding a pistol and a rifle. We all let out huge sighs of relief the moment we saw each other. An officer with the Department of Public Safety’s intelligence section was sitting at a desk, dialing, trying to establish communications. The man next to him was drawing a map of the observation deck—and that was it. I couldn’t believe it. There was no game plan. We were the whole enchilada.
I decided to secure the floor, and I had started opening doors when I saw a very distraught middle-aged man holding a pair of white women’s shoes with blood on them. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was M. J. Gabour [Michael’s father]. He said, “The son of a bitch killed my family up there. Let me have your gun and I’ll go kill him.” He tried to grab my gun away from me, so Jerry Day and I had to restrain him. We wrestled him into the elevator, and Day took him downstairs. We couldn’t afford to have any distractions.
Finally, I opened the door that led up to the observation deck. There were bloody footprints on the stairs. Knowing I had to walk up those steps was a lonely feeling. Allen Crum said, “Where are you going?” I said, “Up.” He said, “Well, I’m coming with you.” I didn’t realize until a little while later, when he asked me to deputize him, that he wasn’t a police officer, but as far as I was concerned, he had more than passed the test, and I was glad to have him with me. To say I wasn’t scared would make me either a liar or a fool.
When we reached the first landing, I could see the face of a young boy. His eyes were open, looking at me, and he was dead. I advanced toward him, hugging the wall. It seemed like an eternity to get to him. I quickly looked around the corner and saw a dead woman lying at his feet. Another woman was lying there, and we turned her on her side to keep her from drowning in her own blood. There was a wounded young man who was slumped against a wall, still conscious. He said, “He’s outside,” and pointed upstairs.
The shooting outside sounded just like rolling thunder, and the reports of the guns down below were echoing back and forth off of the buildings. I couldn’t see the sniper, so I slowly opened the glass door, a little at a time, and stepped outside. There were shell casings everywhere. Crum kept me covered while I looked around the southeast corner, but the sniper was not in sight. I told Crum to remain in his position while I went to the northeast corner. I kept down, because the bullets that civilians were firing from down below kept hitting the limestone and showering dust and little pieces of rock.
Before I reached the northeast corner, I turned and saw an officer I knew, Houston McCoy, standing behind me with a shotgun. All I had was my .38, so that shotgun looked pretty beautiful at that moment. I advanced to the northeast corner, looked around it, and that’s when I saw the sniper. He was sitting about forty feet away with an M1 carbine, and he looked like he had a target in his sights. I immediately fired a round at him and hit him somewhere on his left side. He leapt to his feet and started to turn around, trying to bring his rifle down to return fire. I emptied my gun. I hollered at McCoy to fire, which he did, hitting him. The sniper started going down, and that’s when I reached up—my gun was empty—and grabbed the shotgun from McCoy. I blasted him one more time as he was falling. And then it was over. He was flat on his back, and I knew he was dead.
“EVERYBODY POURED OUT OF THEIR HIDING PLACES.”
The shooting ended at 1:24 p.m. Allen Crum found a towel and waved it over his head to signal that the ordeal was over. Neal Spelce, who was broadcasting live several blocks south of the Tower and whose report was playing on transistor radios across campus, said, “The sniper is dead.” All told, Whitman had shot 43 people. Fifteen were dead, including his wife and his mother.
ANN MAJOR: Everybody poured out of their hiding places. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but I saw many dead people, mostly young, lying on the grass where they had been shot. Mike Cox was a copyboy at the Austin American-Statesman. He is a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin. I remember hearing the chilling sound of what surely was every siren on every ambulance in Austin.
JOHN PIPKIN: The world came alive again. Hundreds of people emerged from wherever they had been hiding. The Tower was like a magnet; everyone started walking toward it.
BILL HELMER: I was standing outside of the Academic Center when I heard a group of students yell, “Lynch the son of a bitch!” Judging from their nice haircuts and neat clothes, I judged them to be frat boys. That was the only time I heard that sort of thing.
FORREST PREECE: I was part of a huge mass of people sweeping east toward the Tower. The whole crowd was silent. No shouts, no cries for revenge—just a mass of humanity moving as one. When I had reached a spot near the steps of the Academic Center, a weird tableau of three men walking west, against the grain, parted us like the Red Sea, slowing me for a few seconds. I instantly knew who they were and what they had done—that they had killed, or somehow stopped, the shooter. In the middle was a Hispanic police officer who seemed to be in a state of shock. His uniform was soaked through, as if someone had hosed him down. His eyes were locked into the thousand-yard stare. Two men were holding him up. The man on his left was whispering soothing words to him as they walked past: “You did okay, buddy. Ease up. You did okay. It’s all right.”
CLIF DRUMMOND: We reached the west side of the Tower, and I had never seen that many people crammed into such a small space. I want to say there were easily a thousand people standing shoulder to shoulder. There wasn’t a breeze moving in any direction, and the crowd was totally quiet. It was so hot that you could almost see the heat. There were lots of rifles—all on safety, barrels pointed up, butts resting on waistbands. You could see the barrels sticking up out of the crowd.
BRENDA BELL: We all gathered at the Tower, as if by common agreement. We wanted to take a look at the guy who did this; we wanted to see him led out in handcuffs, or dead. That was why we were there. But instead, there was this procession of bodies.
BILL HELMER: The cops brought out the dead and wounded. That was really grim: blood everywhere, heads blown apart, hands dragging on the pavement. It took fifteen or twenty minutes. They wheeled Whitman out on a stretcher—out the back, to avoid the mob. He was covered by a sheet that had gotten partly pulled back, and he was all shot to hell. He looked like bloody steak tartare.
CLIF DRUMMOND: Someone, maybe a policeman, said, “That’s the shooter. They got him.” There was lots of cheering when they brought the guy out.
BRENDA BELL: I walked around afterward, and there was blood everywhere. It was hot, so it had turned dark. It was on the mall, all over the sidewalk, up and down the Drag, on the carpet of Sheftall’s jewelers. A lot of store windows were shot out. But it was all cleaned up very fast. One of the orders that [UT regent] Frank Erwin gave was “Clean this mess up.”
SHEL HERSHORN was a photographer for Life magazine. Now retired, he lives in Gallina, New Mexico.
I’d gotten a call in Dallas from Life telling me to get down to Austin. By the time I got there, Whitman was dead. I’d heard there was a foot-wide swath of blood across the carpet at Sheftall’s, so I went there and started making pictures. One of those pictures ended up being the cover photo for the magazine; it was taken through the store window, which was shot up with bullet holes, looking up at the Tower. But this competing photographer had other ideas; he was pacing up and down the sidewalk outside, waiting his turn. So when I was done, I kicked the window out. The store owner came running up to me, very upset. I told him not to worry. I said, “Life magazine will pay for that.”
BILL HELMER: At Scholz’s, students were taking up donations and passing around a petition on a spread-out grocery bag thanking the ambulance drivers for their terrific work.
MIKE COX: My friend Don Vandiver and I didn’t get out of the Statesman until after midnight. We went to campus and walked around in the dark, drinking cans of beer. We were trying to process what we had seen, trying to get drunk so we could wash it away. Lots of students were still walking around campus in amazement. I remember noticing that sand had been spread out on the concrete to soak up the blood.
“WHY DID WHITMAN DO IT?”
When an autopsy was performed on Whitman the next morning, Dr. Coleman de Chenar discovered what appeared to be a small brain tumor. The consensus in the medical community, however, was that the tumor was probably not to blame, given its size and location. (Whitman was not neurologically impaired at the time of the shootings, for example; he was a crack shot.) As for what had made him “snap,” there were plenty of theories. Was it his abusive childhood? His overwhelming anger? The amphetamines he consumed, observed one friend, “like popcorn”?
JOHN ECONOMIDY: The day after the shootings, the university held a press conference in the main newsroom of the Daily Texan. It turned out that Whitman had gone into the Student Health Center that spring complaining of terrible headaches and depression and had seen a psychiatrist named Maurice Heatly. Heatly was the brother of a very powerful state legislator, and that caused some embarrassment politically, because—as the university, to its credit, immediately disclosed—Whitman had told him exactly what he planned to do. Heatly wrote in his report, which was released to reporters, that Whitman was “oozing with hostility” and had expressed a desire to go to the top of the Tower and shoot people with a deer rifle. That was a jaw-dropper. Heatly defended himself by saying that if he committed every kid who threatened to jump off the Tower or do harm to others, there would be a lot of people in the psychiatric ward.
NEAL SPELCE: Why did Whitman do it? [Then-governor] John Connally put together a commission to explore the question, but they couldn’t find a definitive answer. There was nothing anyone could ever point to and say, “Oh, that’s why.” It just remained a mystery.
KINKY FRIEDMAN had graduated in May. A singer, novelist, and 2006 independent gubernatorial candidate, he lives near Kerrville.
I wrote “The Ballad of Charles Whitman” shortly afterward. I’m sure the people who didn’t like it thought I was mocking a tragedy or something, but they didn’t listen to the song. It explores the mind of Charles Whitman and what makes these things happen. The question is, Why? Why would somebody do that? He was a straight-A student, an Eagle Scout, a Marine—just a good all-around, all-American asshole. I doubt if his neighbors thought he was evil. That’s usually how it is: “He was not without his charm.” We profess to find it deplorable, but we’re fascinated because there’s a little bit of Charlie in us all. We’re all capable of terrible acts, and we’re all capable of greatness. It’s a question of which angels we’re listening to, I suppose.
SHELTON WILLIAMS: The cover of Life the next week made a big impression on all of us. The photo, which was taken from the victim’s point of view, was of the Tower, as seen through a window with two gaping bullet holes in it. From that vantage point it looked menacing, even evil—not the triumphant symbol of football victories we were used to.
FORREST PREECE: I was sitting with the rest of the Longhorn Band in Memorial Stadium at the first football game that September when [announcer] Wally Pryor asked us to remember those who had been injured. He suggested giving to the designated people who would be standing with donation cans at the exits. I remember that John Wayne was in attendance, because we were playing his alma mater, USC, and he gave a significant amount of cash. But a story in the next issue of the Daily Texan said that the total take was pitifully small. A friend who was part of the collection effort said he was amazed at how quickly people seemed to forget.
BARTON RILEY: The fall semester started and life went on, just like nothing had ever happened. I never heard it mentioned. Isn’t that amazing? I was rather stunned.
CLAIRE JAMES: I was in intensive care for seven weeks, and I wasn’t released from the hospital until November. I had to learn how to walk again. When I went back to school in January, no one said anything to me or talked about it around me. I almost felt like I had imagined the whole thing. Not one person ever called together the students who’d been injured that day and said, “How are you?” or “We’re so sorry.” I guess that’s just the way it was—it was a measure of the times. We didn’t have the vocabulary at that point to deal with what had happened. If it was mentioned at all, it was always called “the accident.”
“IT WAS LIKE AN INJURY THAT WOULD NEVER HEAL.”
The observation deck was closed after the shootings and then reopened two years later. The board of regents closed it indefinitely in 1974, after a series of suicides. It reopened on September 16, 1999. In 2001 Whitman claimed another life. David Gunby, who had endured chronic kidney problems ever since he was shot in the back, elected to discontinue dialysis. The Tarrant County medical examiner ruled his death a homicide.
BRAD CRIDER is an independent builder living in Austin.
My girlfriend, Ginger, and I live in Charlie Whitman’s house. We signed the lease not knowing; our neighbor across the alleyway was the one who told me. I honestly didn’t think much about it until the first day I was here. I was doing some work on the house when a couple approached me from the street and said, “Do you mind if we take a tour?” They had driven in from Houston to see where Whitman used to live. I said sure, and they were so excited you would have thought they had just won the lottery. Most people just drive by slowly and then turn around and come back for a second look. I’ve seen strangers taking photos of the house; my neighbors have seen people parked in front of their houses, filming from an angle so they won’t be too obvious. Ginger jokes that we should put a plaque in our yard that says “Charlie Whitman doesn’t live here anymore.”
ROSA EBERLY taught a course at UT called “The UT Tower and Public Memory” from 1996 to 2001. She is an associate professor of rhetoric at Penn State University, in University Park, Pennsylvania.
One of the things we looked at was how, in that institutional memory vacuum, pop culture had been able to turn Whitman into a cool antihero. He was the subject of songs and films and even a Web site created by an alum that was called the Charles Whitman Fan Club. Part of why there wasn’t a memorial on campus for so long, I think, was out of concern that it would become a shrine to Whitman.
HARPER SCOTT CLARK: A bullet of Whitman’s had ripped a big chunk out of one of the balustrades on the South Mall, and for the rest of the time I was at UT, whenever my friends and I would stroll by there, we would run our fingers inside it and look up at the Tower and think contemplatively. I went back years later and saw that someone had filled it in with plaster. It was gone, and I remember thinking that was a big mistake.
LARRY FAULKNER was a graduate student in chemistry. The immediate past president of UT-Austin, he lives in Houston, where he is the president of Houston Endowment.
I had been at the university that day. Whitman opened fire moments after I walked off campus. Since that time, the university’s stance had always seemed to be to try to erase what had happened, but with absolutely no success. It was like an injury that would never heal. And I instinctively felt that the way to get past that was to open the observation deck to the public again. I had that as a goal in my mind before I walked on campus as president, in 1998. I believed it was my job to place before the regents a proposal that they could support. And that meant addressing the issues that had caused them to close it in the first place; we had to have a physical barrier to prevent suicides and accidents, and we had to have a credible way of screening for weapons.
ANNIE HOLAND was the student body president for the 1998–1999 academic year. She is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Holand Investment, in McAllen.
Students had presented proposals to the administration year after year, but there had always been resistance until we met with Dr. Faulkner. The observation deck had been closed for so long that it had become a kind of mystical place. There were all sorts of folk tales around campus about the students who had jumped to their deaths, and Whitman, of course. It was only associated with tragedy.
LARRY FAULKNER: The university had never recognized, in any formal way, the people who had been injured that day. So we enhanced the garden behind the Tower and we dedicated it to them. We also held a memorial service, 33 years after the fact.
CHARLES LOCKE is the tour coordinator at the Tower.
We have hour-long, student-guided tours, but the tragedy that occurred in ’66 is not part of our formal presentation. The guides are encouraged to be knowledgeable about the tragedy so they can respond to questions if they are posed. Our intent is not to make this the “Charles Whitman tour,” because that’s not the reason, we hope, that people visit the Tower. One of the benefits of reopening the Tower is that we can reclaim it as a symbol of academic excellence represented by the university.
BOB HIGLEY: I can’t look at the Tower without thinking of that day. It dominates the silhouette of the city. I love it when we’re number one and they make it orange; that’s a kick for me. But that’s always at night, in the dark. During the day, if I see the Tower, I’m carried back. I think about how Paul Sonntag was eighteen years old when he died. And the week before August 1, and the week after, I think about it night after night.
CLIF DRUMMOND: I’m a country boy, and so I had always loved to go to the Tower. It was a high place, and we don’t have high places in West Texas. When you got up there, it was calm and cool, and you could see for a long ways. You could see all over campus, all over this beautiful city, way out to the Hill Country. People went up there all the time. And Charles Whitman ruined that. He took it away from us. It may sound trivial, but he took that away.