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.