Shots Fired!!! Shots Fired!!!

When I was a reporter working in a major market newsroom I learned that on any given day you’d hear two things:  the pedantic cussing of some frustrated reporter, anchor, director, producer, editor or news director. 

And then there was also the loud, squelching sounds of the police, fire department and EMS scanners that never, ever fell silent.  Not in Houston, anyway.   There was a certain alarm tone that precluded the big stuff.   If you heard that, you knew to listen.  If that was followed by “Shots fired”,  you knew to scramble.   A certain internal pandemonium would ensue.  Call it adrenaline.   And even though you might be a hardened reporter,  jaded by having seen so much inhumanity unfold before your eyes,  you’d still hold your breath, waiting to hear what kind of horrific tragedy you were going to have to cover. 

I can imagine that’s what happened in Austin and of course, on the University of Texas campus yesterday.  A  19-year-old  student…a sophomore math major…entered the Perry Castaneda library wearing a ski mask (or so witnesses are saying) and brandishing an AK 47.  He got off about four rounds before apparently fatally shooting himself but he injured no one else in the process.  

Why did he do this?  If he had a reason and it’s been made public, I haven’t dug deep enough to determine what it might have been.  For me though, the simple diagnosis of “just another whack job wanting to go out in a blaze of glory via LIVE BREAKING NEWS cut ins on TV” seems apt enough.  

Needless to say his very public suicide paralyzed the UT campus.  And it should have.   The Virginia Tech massacre is still relatively fresh on everyone’s mind.  There’s the school shooting at Jonestown, Arkansas and of course, le gran pere of contemporary campus tragedies, Columbine.   But The University of Texas actually has more of a reason to appear wistfully snake bitten.   Gun shy, to coin a phrase.  

One of the very first mass murders that happened on a school campus did so on the legendary Forty Acres  on a very warm August afternoon in 1966.

I remember that day very well.  I was seven years old and it was August 1st to be exact.  We were in the waning days of summer break and I was waiting for second grade to start.   It was hot.  I remember that.  It was locust hot.   The kind of summer day when invoking adjectives like sweltering and searing are perfect and can be used interchangeably.  It was just after lunch time and I was inside basking in air-conditioned comfort,  watching TV.  I don’t remember what was on, but I remember that the screen went blank and then a network anchor broke in and went live to The University of Texas campus.   KLRN, a public TV outlet that was based on campus, had somehow managed to dodge shots long enough to get a live camera outside and position it towards the top of the tower.   The San Antonio TV station we were watching picked up the feed and there it stayed.

What you just watched is the acatual broadcast of  the Huntley/Brinkley Report as it aired on NBC late that August afternoon in 1966.   The report which covered the UT sniper merely said that Whitman was taken out;  producers were remiss in not conveying how that was done.  It’s an amazing story really.

It was just after 12 pm when the first shot rang out and the campus, as one might imagine, was in utter chaos.  Charles Whitman, a UT student who’d already killed his mother,  his young wife and two tourists who’d just visited the observation deck, had taken a cache of weapons, ammo, food, water and a radio to the top of the observation deck of the famed UT Tower.

He was a Marine sharpshooter, plus he had a 360-degree view of campus from all four sides and that made him the most treacherous of snipers.   The observation deck with its thick walls was  25 stories up.  He was able to shoot through open turrets in the deck’s cement barrier.    This allowed Whitman to fire at will and for the most part, unimpeded for 96 minutes. The Tower afforded Whitman a nearly unassailable vantage point from which he could select his victims at whim.   Innocent people in between classes…walking home along adjacent Guadaliupe Street, better known as The Drag.    It was as if the tower had been built for carrying out his fondest desire.  In fact, in previous years Whitman had remarked offhandedly to friends and colleagues that a sniper could do extensive damage from high atop the tower.

And on August 1, 2966, that’s exactly what this sniper did.  I remember video of Whitman taken by the APD chopper with a cameraman on board.  It brazenly flew over the tower a couple of times.   I remember seeing Whitman crouching low near the floor of the observation deck.    His shocking platinum blond head of hair; his rifle poised at the ready.   He was wearing a jumpsuit.  It looked gray in the grainy black and white TV images.    

Keep in mind, this was 1966; the Austin Police Department had a helicopter, but it wasn’t equipped for offensive purposes.     This was also Austin, Texas in 1966.   The police department didn’t have the fire power and didn’t think twice in allowing well-meaning “good old boys” who grabbed deer rifles and made their way to the campus to assist the cops in “capping this bastard once and for all”.    Their efforts were all for naught.   

The key in stopping Whitman would be to do so on the observation deck.

Face to face.   Gun to gun.

Interestingly enough, this decision wasn’t made at some Police Command Post set up adjacent to campus.  No big police department top brass weighed the options and chose this course of action.   This was the only option derived  by a few officers who were simply carrying out their duty to keep the citizenry sate; a few officers who bravely dodged bullets to make it to the first floor of the tower with only one goal in mind: stopping Whitman. 

Austin Police Officer Jerry Day was the first officer to travel up the tower’s elevator. He and volunteer University Co-Op employee Allen Crum (who Day deputized on the spot), went up with off duty Officer Ramiro Martinez. They followed Martinez and Officer Houston McCoy to the observation deck, they stayed at the door to guard it. Martinez went out first and McCoy followed.

Martinez decided to go alone around the SE corner in a crawling position with his .38 revolver drawn. McCoy realized that he would need back-up and rounded the corner with his shotgun. They two men proceeded to the northeast corner of the deck. Martinez spotted Whitman sitting on the floor of the northwest corner.  Martinez jumped into the walkway in a split-position, fired his .38 revolver in the direction of Whitman, who was partially shielded by a floor light ballast.

McCoy ascertained the direction in which Martinez was firing, and stepped out and away from Martinez, and saw Whitman’s head above the ballast, just as the gunman was aiming his M-1 carbine around towards them. As Martinez was firing, McCoy fired his riot shotgun at the at Whitman, clad in a white head-band, effectively killing the sniper with the first blast.

When the smoke had cleared, Whitman killed 16 people and wounded more than 20 others.

He’d been under a psychiatrist’s care and reported having headaches from time to time.  In records made public after the attack, Whitman told his doctor about a fantasy he’d been having of shooting people from the UT tower.    The shrink was never found responsible in any way for the killings, though.  The general consensus was that the doctor did the best he could with the information he was given by Whitman in their sessions together. Nothing else about the troubled young man suggested that he would do what he did, so he was never considered a threat to himself or to others.

And so his treatment was dispensed accordingly.

When Whitman’s body was autopsied, doctors discovered a small tumor in his brain.  It was about the size of a walnut.  Did that drive Whitman to do what he did?  No one really knows, but there are theories.   There’s the camp that contends that the tumor triggered seizures that precluded his self control and the ability to discern right from wrong.    Some Whitman apologists (as they’ve been called) lay blame on  “amphetamine psychosis”; that his is abuse of Dexedrine (which I believe was revealed in psychiatric transcripts) brought about psychotic episodes which made him completely delusional.   Some, way out on a limb, felt sure that his being a Marine made him trained killer.    Then, there are the standard stressers that get credit, namely his inability to cope with his life.  He was a broke college student with a wife to support and this was a marriage that reportedly was in serious trouble.   His  course load ridiculously heavy and he was a emotionally strained man who spent an emotionally strained childhood spanked to the point of abuse by an extremely overbearing father with  intense anger issues.   

No one will ever know for sure what prompted Whitman to do what he did.

But in spite of all that death, life went on at  UT.    The University spent $5000 repairing most but not all of the bullet holes.  When I enrolled as a freshman at Texas in 1977, my orientation advisor gave my group  a tour of the campus and yes, even pointed out a few of the bullet holes in the buildings that Whitman wounded.   Guess they were kept for posterity.  

The observation deck remained  open for a few years after the shootings , but four suicides between 1968 and 1974 lead to its closure.  In 1976, the University Regents permanently closed the deck, and  it remained so for more than twenty years.   On September 15, 1999,  the school’s 116th anniversary, the deck was reopened.  

As for Charles Whitman?  Well, Time has healed most bullet wounds—physically, but never the emotional ones.   Events like what that which occured on campus yesterday tend to reanimate the fears and concerns of the possibility of another tragic on-campus shooting…fears that were long thought dead.    But today, when a burnt orange sun sets over Austin, officially ending the first full day after the shooting, these fears will be very much alive and weighing heavily on every coed, professor and faculty members’ mind.   To offset that, officials will make sure that for the next few days, security on campus will be hyper-vigilant. 

Then again, that’s the norm inside the UT Tower.   Because of that tragic day in the late summer of 1966, there are now armed security guards on the ground floor of the tower and on the  observation deck itself, which is surrounded by a stainless steel catch-all to prevent suicides and falls.  Visitors can once again take in the beautiful panoramic view of Austin, but to do so, they must pass through a metal detector first. 

Like the one people must go through to enter Columbine.  Like at Virginia Tech, perhaps and other places where tragedy has altered the course of existence.

You know, there used to be a time when metal detectors in public places were unheard of.    Then again, so were school shootings.

Charles Whitman changed all that.

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6 comments

  1. I was on the UT campus that awful day. I had been at the library finishing studies for a term paper due in a few days at the college in San Antonio I was attending. The drive home was something else listening to the radio. Whitman ruined the idea of transferring to UT and I finished my degree at a University in San Antonio.

    I was never in any danger that day, but it still had a profound effect on my life.

  2. I do remember the event on TV, but living in New England at the time, the story was given coverage in the national news and folks discussed it some, but didn’t have the buzz it must have had to all of you living here. Thanks for revisiting it with great detail and excellent narrative – very well written Laurie.

  3. I was born in 1966, and one of my friend’s moms, pregant with him at the time, walked across Whitman’s shooting zone a couple of hours before he opened fire.

    Makes one think.

  4. I drive by the campus every two or three months on I-35. Looking at the tower makes me think of this well past the time it takes me to get through Round Rock.

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