On the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin with a cache of weapons and started shooting.
Whitman’s killing spree, probably America’s first mass shooting, would leave 17 people dead and 31 others injured.
It was an incredible, shocking moment in this country’s history and it is the subject of Keith Maitland’s riveting documentary, Tower, which PBS broadcast last week.
“It was not something you’d expect from our beautiful tower,” one woman says about the incident years later.
I have to be honest--I sobbed so much during this film I must’ve gone through an entire box of tissues.
Using a combination of old news footage, current interviews, and rotoscope animation, Maitland tells the survivors’ shocking stories of what happened over the course of 96 horrific minutes.
There’s Alex Hernandez, who was shot off his bicycle as he delivered newspapers; and Allen Crum, a manager of the University Book Store Co-op, who offered to help the police stop the slaughter and who ended up on the observation deck with a rifle in his hands.
We hear from Claire Wilson, who was eight pregnant at the time, and who, along with her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman were shot as they left the UT student union.
Eckman was killed instantly as he tried to help Claire, who lay there bleeding in the near 100-degree heat in this suddenly formed No Man’s Land.
One woman tells the filmmakers that “on that day I knew I was a coward” because she didn’t put herself in harm’s way to help the wounded. Wanting to live is hardly cowardice, but this atrocity did spark some incredible displays of courage.
There’s an amazing woman named Rita Starpattern, who ran out to help Claire Wilson, got down on her stomach and kept the bleeding woman talking so she wouldn’t loss consciousness.
And there was John "Artly" Fox, just 17 years old at the time, who with a friend, ran out and helped carry Claire Wilson to safety.
The film includes news footage of Fox and his friend running with the wounded woman as his glasses slide off his face.
And we hear from Ramiro "Ray" Martinez and Houston McCoy, two Austin cops who killed Whitman and ended the carnage.
I was 9 years old when the tower massacre happened and I have vague memories of the adults talking about it, including my dad, who spoke about “a fat guy who ran out to help people.”
Tower includes an on-the-scene interview with a heavyset fellow—and Vietnam vet—who rescued some of the victims. This man, with bloodstains clearly visible on his shirt, carried Thomas Eckman and he told the reporter that he knew Eckman was the dead the second he picked him up.
Toward the end of the film, the interviews shift from animation to modern day footage of the survivors, an incredible bit of editing that brings these people and their words brilliantly to life.
Claire Wilson lost her baby and even though the doctors said she could have children, she wasn’t able to conceive and eventually adopted a boy from Ethiopia.
And as much as she loves this child, now a grown man, she also talks about having a dream where she’s holding the baby she lost, who’s alive and well.
Rita Starpattern died in 1996; she was just 50 years old.
Houston McCoy died in 2012 and even late in life his cracked as he expressed regret for not running into the tower immediately upon his arrival and taking on the gunman himself.
Billy Speed, an Austin cop who was killed that day, and a lot of others would be alive, McCoy says.
“Woulda, coulda,” he adds, clearly still in pain.
In 2016, 50 years to the goddamn day of the tower shootings, the Campus Carry law went into effect, allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns at public universities in Texas.
One of those speaking out against this madness was Ray Martinez, who faced that psychopath.
“Let the police do the policing,” he said.
After the massacre, people expressed shock and outrage, of course, although back then they had no idea that mass shootings would become so frequent in America--Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech--that you would need an Excel spreadsheet to keep them straight in your mind.
It was a different time and this was not something you’d expect from our beautiful country.