Today, on the serene campus of the University of Texas, it is difficult to imagine what happened, but a lot of Texans who lived through the turbulent times of the 1960s can’t help themselves. They glance up at the tower and, try as they might, can’t forget it.
One sweltering August day in 1966 -- 45 years ago Monday -- gunfire echoed across the campus. A sniper armed with a high-powered rifle opened fire from the observation deck of the tower, shooting dozens of people during a 96-minute spree of mass murder.
Students and teachers walking between classes fell to the pavement, shot dead by an expert marksman. Panic swept across UT as people ran for cover, crouching behind walls, trees and cars.
"I remember seeing some students that would run out while the shooting was going on and pick up a body and brought it back," said Herb Ritchie, an eyewitness who’s now a judge in Harris County. "That was incredibly brave."
The sniper was a clean-cut engineering student named Charles Whitman, a former Marine with a tumor the size of a walnut in his brain. During that summer, he had noticed that his personality was changing. He knew something was wrong with him, but he didn’t seek help. Instead, that morning in August, he sat down at a typewriter and typed out what would become his suicide note.
"I do not really understand myself these days," Whitman wrote. "I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts."
Whitman’s rampage began at his home, where he murdered his mother and his wife. In his letter, he apologized for killing them and requested that researchers perform an autopsy on his own body so that they might prevent future tragedies.
He then went to the campus, bringing along a trunk full of supplies, including food, water, ammunition, a machete and seven different firearms—rifles, shotguns and handguns.
A classmate later recalled hearing Whitman speculate that the UT Tower would make an ideal sniper’s nest. So the young man who had just murdered his own family made his way to the tower. Once he was inside, he started shooting people on his way to the observation deck.
Within minutes, the news had flashed around the world. A television camera pointing out of the studios of the campus station broadcast terrifying live pictures of the tower, showing puffs of smoke belching from Whitman’s rifle as gunshots boomed down onto the streets of Austin.
"It’s like a battle scene!" said a reporter broadcasting live from the campus. "There’s another shot! And another shot!"
"This is a warning to the citizens of Austin!" he yelled. "Stay away from the university area! There is a sniper on the university tower firing at will!"
At the radio station that was owned by President Lyndon Johnson, a teenaged disc jockey named Hank Moore suddenly had to become a newsman. His station’s news director, Paul Bolton, rushed into the studio to help.
"Within minutes we got a call that one of the casualties was his grandson," Moore remembers.
As bystanders around the campus cowered behind whatever cover they could find, a small group of people caught in the tower barricaded themselves into a room just one floor below the sniper’s nest. Among them was Herb Ritchie.
"I could look out the window," Ritchie recalled. "And I saw bodies out there on the main mall."
A number of students brought rifles to the campus and tried to shoot the sniper. But it quickly became clear there was only one way to stop the bloodshed. A couple of police officers realized they would have to climb the staircase leading to the observation deck.
"I remember it was like an ice skating rink," said Milton Shoquist, a retired Austin police officer. "There was that much blood, so thick it would come over the tops of your shoes."
Beyond the danger posed by the sniper, they were almost hit by what could be called friendly fire—gunshots popping from the rifles of students on the ground.
"Three or four splats hit just above my head," recalls retired officer Houston McCoy.
Another officer, Ramiro Martinez, armed with nothing more than his service revolver, took the lead. McCoy followed behind, carrying a shotgun. They crouched as they made their way around the narrow observation deck.
When Martinez saw the sniper, he unloaded his six-shot revolver, apparently missing with every shot. McCoy stood over Martinez and fired his shotgun at Whitman, who was killed instantly.
At long last, the gunfire stopped.
"We’ve got that man!" yelled an officer on his police radio. "Martinez got him! We’re going up!"
Across the campus and along the streets surrounding it, people cautiously stepped out of their hiding places. And hundreds of them, an ocean of eyewitnesses to the carnage, walked in a silent human wave toward the tower.
But like a sea parting, they made way for three police officers walking away from the building. They remember Martinez looked stunned. And they heard the other officers reassuring him, telling him he’d done well.
Stretchers carried away the bodies of 17 people, including the corpse of Charles Whitman. Another 31 people had been injured.
Today, if you visit the University of Texas, you can walk onto the observation deck. It is protected with guards and metal detectors.
But for a lot of Texans who remember that day, nothing can protect it from its painful past.