The grand tower at the University of Texas at Austin is an architectural icon – an icon that casts a long shadow over Texas.

But on the ground floor, a narrow hallway of blue concrete block, empty under dim fluorescent light, leads to a metal detector that doesn’t seem to be working. Even if it were, nothing more than a Coke machine guards the yellow doors.

In contrast to its sweeping presence, everything seems cramped, the ceiling severe and low. The ride to the 28th floor is as unremarkable as the official name of this place: the Main Building.

The observation deck, 231 feet above the UT-Austin campus, once offered the grandest view of the capital city. It was up here – on Monday, Aug. 1, 1966 – that student Charles Whitman began to open fire.

The bullets stopped only when Austin police officers entered the observation deck 96 minutes later, cornering and fatally shooting Whitman. After killing his wife and mother in their homes, Whitman killed 14 people on campus, and wounded 32 others.

Pockmarks left by bullets still dot the walls of the observation desk, as though the concrete patches didn’t hold to the tower’s limestone facade.

Ray Martinez was the first Austin police officer to make his way onto the observation deck.

“Bullets keep coming up at us,” he says. “You could hear the crack as they go over your head, and then they’d hit the tower. Dust would come down – rain down in little particles of stone.”

In “Out of the Blue: 50 Years After the UT Tower Shooting” Texas Standard spoke with nearly 100 people who had close ties to what happened on campus that day. They were professors, students, mental health workers. They were reporters at the scene. They knew Whitman. They knew those who were shot. They were one of those who were wounded. They were those that helped move the wounded to safety, like Artly Snuff.

“The inscription at the base of the tower reads, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,'” Snuff says. “And to me, one of the truths I discovered that day, are there are monsters that live among us. There are people that speak unthinkable thoughts and do unthinkable things. And they’re out there.”

In the five decades since the shooting – an event that seemed to come from out of the blue – history has shaped that morning into the start of a new chapter in American life.

It was already hot when the sun came up, remembers Neal Spelce, then a reporter for KTBC. By the time noon rolled around, the day was blistering hot. There weren’t that many students in summer school, but they were going to classes. It was just a normal day in Austin, full of the regular hustle and bustle of a university campus.

But when the first shots were fired, the scene changed dramatically.

In the aftermath, the dead and wounded were rushed to Brackenridge Hospital for treatment. But in the days after the shooting, life went on like normal – perhaps because the world had no other way to process such trauma. UT-Austin closed the school on Tuesday to clean up, Artly Snuff recalls, but reopened Wednesday, as if nothing had happened.

Some say the university was in a state of denial about the mass shooting, the first of its kind on a school campus. It helped define what we now recognize as mass shootings, which continue to happen with horrifying frequency. Even as we struggle to understand more recent shootings, we still have unanswered questions about that day 50 years ago.

What do we expect to find on that observation deck? What are we looking for? What was Whitman thinking? Why did it happen? What was the purpose? What does it mean?

At towerhistory.org, Texas Standard explores these questions and the memories of those impacted by that day. There, you can stream our hour-long oral history, explore an interactive map of campus, listen to extended interview excerpts with nearly 100 people, delve into archival material and more. Visit towerhistory.org for more.

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  • Michael Matthews August 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    I was locked into the broadcast aired by Public Radio International…Out Of The Blue by David Brown…great job…I immediately posted this to FB…Just listened to David Brown with PRI…Out of the Blue UT Tower Shooting…you need to go to Towerhistory.org and listen to this documentary.

  • Elaine Goodson August 3, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    I grew up in Austin and remember hearing the shots from the tower. One of our neighbors was a man named Jake Bitzan who was a painting contractor. He had some special skills. He was of German descent from Cleveland, Ohio and knew how to do the decorative painting done in Germany. Because of this ability he redid some of the painted churches of Texas such a St. Mary’s downtown. He also always repainted the UT tower clock’s face and the area around it. He was supposed to have been painting the clock on the day of the shooting, but was running behind schedule and was not there.

    I used to wonder if his being up there could have stopped Whitman, but after hearing all that has been said in the last few days, I doubt that anything would have stopped Whitman. Jake would have been another casualty if he had been there.

  • stan August 2, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    Super documentary…finally for we in austin a more complete exposition of a previously shadowy event.

  • Laurel Gries August 2, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    This special was so professionally produced! Kudos and thanks to all who were involved. The editing in particular was spectacular, and the sound effects were chilling. Who needs television (I’ve never owned one) with radio this good?

  • Holly O. Jones August 2, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    Touched to tears by the humanity of this piece and the courage of many of those involved. It is easy to peg this event as the beginning of the unraveling of our so called modern society, where the guns of our militaristic assault upon our imagined or real foes began to backfire.
    “Friendly Fire” wasn’t it?
    The voices directly involved here have brought us a chilling recall of the UT clock tower shooting like nothing else could. What I am wondering is when will we honestly discuss the abused, broken, assaulted child and altar boy Whitman, who became the Marine whose training and background created this bellwether horror? I can assure you personally that the Academic approach to the healing of serious emotional trauma and lack of maternal support creating the roots of cruelty is failing us utterly. Psychiatric and Big Pharma cures will continue to bore horrifying holes into a self destructive society as we fail to understand that the Military/Academic/Industrial machine has haywired our understanding of the need for healthy nurturing at the worst costs imaginable. Sadaam Hussein and Adolf Hitler also experienced brutal, negating, interrupted fathering which was also destructive and tormenting to the mother. These things aren’t mystifying, it all works like clockwork, predictably.
    What is shocking is how grown victims are not understood as such, but simply and conveniently remembered as Monsters.

  • MarySue Foster August 1, 2016 at 11:24 am

    This is one of the most remarkable radio broadcasts I have ever heard. (That’s saying a lot. I’ve heard some great ones.) Fifty years ago Charles Whitman became the first mass shooter in modern history, firing from the University Tower observation deck onto the UT Austin campus. It was an event that was, truly, unimaginable. There were no SWAT teams, there was no evacuation-in-case-of-a-gunman plans, we didn’t use the word “trauma” to describe the after effects of violence, police didn’t wear combat equipment — it was a different world.

    This documentary captures the terror and heroism of the day. I listened to it twice and was moved to tears both times. I hope you take the time to listen. It’s a window into another time.

    Thank you, Texas Standard.

  • Steve July 29, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    What has not been discussed is the effect on the student’s families. My sister and her husband were students at that time, and during the evening news, we started hearing reports of the shooting. We had one phone in the hall and I remember my mother sitting in the floor and crying while she was trying to get a call through to my sister. The phone lines into Austin were completely jammed. Finally at about 10 pm, she heard my sister’s voice and I remember my mother completely breaking down, sobbing. My sister had been on campus and heard the shots while exiting the Varsity cafeteria, thinking the sound was strange. Later, she realized she was being shot at. Her husband was in the business building and could see a female down, but could not get to her. A most terrifying day for all.

  • Hw Scott July 25, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    Riveting broadcast. I agree with others that the broadcast kept me glued to the radio! Is there a link to hear show again?

  • Hw Scott July 25, 2016 at 7:26 pm

    Riveting broadcast today! I hated to leave my car. Is there a link to hear/share broadcast?

  • j. gerych July 25, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    how do we find and fix these disgruntled young men that do these things, that’s what we haven’t figured out yet.

  • Scott Fix July 25, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    Heavy show today. Well done.

  • Julia Miller July 25, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    So moving – I’m in tears. Really well done.

  • Larry Fitzgerald July 25, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    David Brown did an excellent job on this dark moment in Texas history. The interviews were outstanding. I was working at a radio station in Bryan/College Station and we got permission to carry KTBC’s broadcast with Neal Spelce. Out of the Blue should be entered in Peabody competition.

  • Jean schuler July 25, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Excellent story and very well told. Thank you!

  • Alton Chambers July 25, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Great program. The voices of those that witnessed this evening 50 years ago are still haunted by it. And their memories make events today that much more tragic. The death of innocence.