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Friday, July 22, 2016

And so it began

The UT Tower Shooting

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower with three rifles, two pistols, and a sawed-off shotgun. The 25-year-old architectural engineering major and ex-Marine—who had previously complained of searing headaches and depression—had already murdered his mother, Margaret, and his wife, Kathy, earlier that morning. He fired his first shots just before noon, aiming with chilling precision at pedestrians below. “The crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks . . . and covered the nerve center of what was then a relatively small, quiet college town,” noted executive editor Pamela Colloff in her 2006 oral history of the shootings. “Hundreds of students, professors, tourists, and store clerks witnessed the 96-minute killing spree as they crouched behind trees, hid under desks, took cover in stairwells, or, if they had been hit, played dead.”
At the time, there was no precedent for such a tragedy. Whitman “introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space,” wrote Colloff. By the time he was gunned down by an Austin police officer early that afternoon, he had shot 43 people, thirteen of whom died.
At year’s end, the Associated Press and United Press International ranked the shootings as the second most important story of 1966, behind only the war in Vietnam. The massacre would spur the creation of SWAT teams across the country. Because such tactical teams did not exist at the time of Whitman’s crime, many students had risked their own lives to fire back at the unseen sniper, or to help wounded strangers to safety.

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