Here in Austin this was a big day in the media, though not one recognized nationwide. Forty years ago today a troubled ex-Marine named Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower of the University of Texas administration building and began to gun down students and passersby on the south and west malls of the University and on nearby Guadalupe Street.
Before heading to the University Whitman had killed his mother and his wife in their home, leaving behind a detailed suicide note with instructions to give his estate to psychological research and do an autopsy to determine if there was something physically wrong with his brain. As it turned out there was a tumor in his hypothalamus which may have been pressing on his amygdala and altering his emotional state.
He was able to get a footlocker and a small wooden crate full of guns into the building and to the top of the 27-story tower, including a Remington 700 rifle with a hunting scope, an M1 Carbine, another rifle, a shotgun and a variety of small arms. He started firing at 11:48 and ultimately killed 16 people and wounded another 31.
The incident ended when Austin police officers Ray Martinez and Houston McCoy were able to break through the barricade Whitman had made to block the observation deck door. Martinez shot him repeatedly with his service revolver and McCoy hit him with a shotgun blast. Whitman was dead before he hit the floor.
Whitman, the UT Clock Tower, and the events of August 1st, 1966 have become ingrained in popular culture, even as symbols in the minds of those who have no specific awareness of the events. It was the first widely publicized mass random killing of this sort, the model for novelists, moviemakers and copycats. It was also the first incident of this sort to be covered live on TV, with a camera crew from the local CBS affiliate broadcasting from within the zone of fire. It put Austin on the national map in a negative way which it took the Armadillo, Willie Nelson, South by Southwest and years of great music and heavy partying to live down.
Today it's all a piece of increasingly distant history, but hearing interviews with many of those who were involved on the radio and local television today was enlightening in a bizarre, futureshock or perhaps reverse futureshock kind of way. It was revelatory to be reminded of how different things were in 1966 in Austin and how the city and our world have changed since then.
A few examples relating to the incident stood out. 1966 was really before the introduction of SWAT teams. They were invented at least in part from the response to this incident. As a result the response to Whitman's sniping was much more rapid than it would be today, concluded in a couple of hours when today it might have taken twice as long or more. But the process involved a lot more risk for civilians and for the officers involved. Regular patrol officers showed up, there weren't very many of them, they had no special weapons and had to work fast and improvise. There was no real attempt to negotiate, although that might have changed if Whitman had hostages. There was also minimal supervision and coordination, and certainly no scenarios or game plan for dealing with what at the time was a unique situation. There was an aerial flyby and a very unsuccessful attempt to shoot Whitman from the plane, but solving the problem basically came down to a few very brave and outgunned men charging a trained killer.