The UT Tower Sniper Story at 50
By Howard Falkenberg
Austin experienced a long weekend remembrance of the deadly Tower event as July turned to August this summer. Special coverage of the anniversary in a variety of media, a screening of the documentary film “Tower” for those lucky enough to obtain tickets quickly, the unveiling of a privately financed memorial on the UT campus to those killed by Charles Whitman, and a special presentation for Headliners Club members and their guests – all immersed the community once again in thinking about “the nation’s first mass murder in a public place.”
Neal Spelce, the man who first told the story of Whitman’s deadly assault in live radio broadcasts from the scene, moderated the presentation and provided perspective on those affected – victims dead and wounded, students and townspeople stunned by what happened, and the police officers who brought it to an end.
Spelce was joined in the Headliners presentation by four others:
Former club president and former Headliners Foundation chairman Gary Pickle, then a cameraman for KTBC-TV, who covered the carnage that day;
Former American-Statesman reporter Brenda Bell, a UT student at the time who observed the terrifying scene on campus 50 years ago;
Phil Miller, a longtime Austin sports reporter who “epitomized the all hands on deck” response by jumping into action to help Pickle and Spelce provide coverage to a national audience;
Keith Maitland, the documentary filmmaker who worked 10 years to get“Tower” produced after reading Texas Monthly editor Pam Colloff’s 2006 story “96 Minutes.” Maitland created a film Spelce called “the definitive piece on what happened that day.” (Much of the film was itself wrapped around what Spelce saw and the story he broadcasted on August 1, 1966.)
Miller told the Headliners audience that at the time it was difficult to believe that someone was really shooting people from the Tower. “Maybe kids had gotten on the Tower and were throwing cherry bombs down,” he thought.
Bell and others said a common reaction from those who experienced the trauma of the sniper attack was that they could not believe it only lasted 96 minutes because it seemed longer. When it was over, hundreds of students and others came onto the plaza in front of the UT Tower and stood speechless, trying to process what had happened. “It was like we were zombies. And then we began to see the bodies carried out,” said Bell.
Pickle, who recalled “there was a lot of bravery that day,” described feeling strange looking at bodies on the ground. He also noted the general silence after reports the sniper had been killed.
Spelce said that KTBC had never before shown a dead body on television, “but because of the enormity of this, we did.” Why? Events that day were so powerful and so important for Austin. He also noted breaking a standard rule against reporting names of victims on-air before relatives could be notified. That caused grief for Spelce’s predecessor, former KTBC news director Paul Bolton. He had come into the station to help, only to learn of his own grandson’s death as reporter Joe Roddy read the sniper victim’s names on-air from Brackenridge Hospital.
Citizens rushed to UT with scoped deer rifles to help police, who carried only side arms and shotguns. It’s Spelce’s opinion those people saved lives by curtailing Whitman’s free-wheeling shooting, adding that “most of the people who were shot were in the early moments of the attack.”
Police communications in 1966 were primitive by today’s standards. As a result, there was no coordination and no direction given to the officers who responded to the scene at UT. “The four guys who went up the tower did it at their own initiative without any guidance or direction on how to handle such a problem,” Spelce added.
Those four – three police officers and a staffer from The Co-Op who was quickly deputized on the way to the top of the tower – ended Whitman’s terror with gunfire under the clocks on the tower faces. The Headliners audience, a capacity crowd, included many members old enough to recall what it was like in Austin in the middle 60s – a town of about 200,000 people at the time. For them it was an opportunity to once again try to come to grips with what happened and why it remains prominent in our minds after so many other mass killings at schools and elsewhere. Spelce believes that is because later events have no visual records, as opposed to KLRN’s camera pointed at the tower and broadcasting live while the shooting was underway. This was perhaps the first live national broadcast of a crisis event as it unfolded.
And the tower itself is the second reason: “it’s such a dominant visual reminder of the event,” said Spelce.