Sunday, June 24, 2012

1966: A Hot Day On Campus

Parking wasn't as bad on the University of Texas campus in those days like it is today, but you still had to know the ropes to get a parking spot on campus at mid-day.  I had the plan.  I had a secret back way to get on campus with my car, just off San Jacinto Blvd., without having to go through the security gates.  Although I didn't know it until later, I would not have otherwise been able to get on campus that day.

From the parking lot I used, it was a relatively short walk up the service road, past Gregory Gym to my auditorium class room in Burnet Hall, just on the other side of the South Mall at the base of the Texas Tower.

It was hot that day, over 95 degrees, humid, and there was no wind so I was perspiring heavily as I came up the hill to the South Mall.  The heat reminded me of the race riots that had sprung up across the north throughout the summer: Blacks and whites clashed in Detroit, Omaha, Chicago and Cleveland, which the experts blamed on the unusual and excessive heat.  I wondered if there wasn't something more basic involved. 

Despite being preoccupied with these thoughts, I did take notice that there didn't seem to be the normal flow of students near the heart of campus.  In fact, there was no one with me on the sidewalk as I passed between classroom buildings on my left and the high wall that blocked my view of the Texas Tower on the right until I was almost to the steps leading up to the South Mall.   The mall was a large expanse of terrazzo and lawn areas, separated by waist high hedges, in front of the 28-story tower, the most prominent structure on campus with its four huge clocks, their green glass faces and shinning gold hands facing north, south, east and west: a symbol of Texas pride.

As I neared the top of the hill, the wall to my right was getting lower and lower and I began to hear what sounded like firecrackers going off up on the mall.  ‘Just some students letting off a little summer final exam steam’, I thought.  Pop, pop….pop.  Then, I thought I heard a woman crying and then more voices, people shouting.  My mind was confused by what was quickly becoming a cacophony of sounds of people in distress. 

About ten feet from the end of the wall I caught my first glimpse of the top of the Tower.  Then I saw a strange thing.  A puff of white smoke suddenly appeared from over the railing of the observation deck and a couple of seconds later, the “pop” of a firecracker reached my ears.  Another puff, another pop….and then a woman’s scream.  Then I noticed that the clock face was curiously cracked and broken with huge shards of glass missing. The hands on the clock read 1:20 PM.

As I rounded the end of the wall and stood at the foot of the steps the scene in front of me was horrifying.  There were bodies lying here and there across the mall, most of them face down on the searing pavement, in pools of their own blood.  The realization that these people had been shot came crashing down on me. Some of the people were moving slightly but it was obvious that some were already dead.  Hundreds of students and faculty were crouched down, hiding behind trees and hedges and walls and around the corners of buildings.  Both women and men were screaming and sobbing.  It was surreal.  It was terrifying.  Despite the heat of the day, my sweat turned cold.

Suddenly I noticed one of my fraternity brothers, Jim, about one hundred feet from me, nearly in the middle of the mall.  He was moving slightly and at first I thought that he might be wounded.  Then I thought he might be just lying on his stomach trying to not draw attention.  Finally it became apparent he was lying on top of a woman, who was almost entirely covered up by his bulky 6’2” frame.  She was crying and blood had puddled around her, staining the terrazzo.  “JIM!” I yelled. 

He swung his head around at my call and screamed at me, “TAKE COVER!” 

As I dove behind the wall at the foot of the steps I heard several more pops, gunshots, still thinking they sounded like firecrackers in the distance.  Although I didn't know it at the time, those final “pops” were the sounds of Officer Ramiro Martinez’s shotgun and service revolver as he took down Charles J. Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper”.  For 96 minutes, Whitman used his 6mm Remington rifle with scope, a 25mm Remington rifle and a 30 caliber M-1 Carbine to shoot and kill sixteen people, including an unborn child, while wounding 30 others. 

Whitman shot with uncanny and deadly accuracy.  He knocked a paperboy off his bicycle while he was riding on the sidewalk in front of the University Co-op on Guadalupe Street, wounding him critically: “The Drag”, as it is called, is on the far western edge of the UT campus, making that a four hundred yard shot at a moving target.  He killed a police officer who was hiding behind some columns in an attempt to get to the base of the Tower: the bullet found its target through a six inch opening some three hundred and fifty yards away.  Some city workers, hiding behind parked cars with reporters and other observers, were over five hundred yards to the South of the campus.  They thought they were out of range until a city electrician stood up and Whitman put a fatal bullet in his abdomen.  The last gunshot from Officer Martinez was fired at point blank range at 1:24 PM.  Whitman was dead.

It took nearly fifteen minutes for the news to be conveyed from the observation deck and fed over the police scanners to the news media.  The radio broadcast that Whitman had been shot and the siege over was on the airwaves as soon as the local stations could pick it up.  This news was then passed quickly though the crowds that were huddled all across campus.  Men and some women started running out onto the mall and I joined them looking after our fellow students who were scattered all around.  The scene was as grisly as a wartime battlefield.  I reached Jim at about the time the sound of ambulance and police sirens were heard coming from all directions. 

“Jim, it’s over”, I shouted as I ran up to where he was still laying on top of the girl.  I still thought he might have been hit himself.  He slowly got up, his shirt soaked though with sweat and splotches of the girls blood.  He was shaking.  I suspected he was in shock. “Are you alright”, I asked. 

“Yes, I’m fine” he said, although he didn't look fine to me.  I turned my attention to the girl.  She was still face down with her textbooks and papers some fifteen feet away and strewn all about.  I could see the exit wound just above her right shoulder blade area and there was substantial bleeding.  “She must have been one of the first ones hit”, Jim said, standing over us.  “She was already down on the ground when I came up from the BEB library and was hiding behind those trees over there”, he continued, pointing to the huge oaks on the left side of the mall. I asked him how long he had been out here and he said it must have been over an hour. “She was trying to crawl toward the hedge for cover and she was crying out for help”, he said, “when all of a sudden a bullet ricocheted off the pavement about six inches from her head.  That maniac was trying to shoot her again!” he said between clinched teeth.  “She screamed and I had to do something so I ran out here and covered her up”, he said, and then he broke down, sobbing out his weariness, his fear, his sorrow. 

At this point medical personnel from both on and off campus were flooding onto the mall, attending the wounded and putting them and the bodies of those who were already gone on gurneys and carrying them to shelter or ambulances.  I told a medic what had happened to the girl, whose name I never knew.  “And take care of my brother.”

The rest of the day was hazy for me.  I wandered aimlessly around campus for a couple of hours and then I couldn't take anymore.  Classes had been cancelled so I went back to the apartment.  My roommates were both gone.  I remember standing in the shower for a long time that night, the streaming water masking the tears streaming down my face.

We have seen many heroes and heroines emerge in recent years in response to tragic events that challenge our character, our courage and our resolve.  But when I think back to August 1, 1966, I will never forget Jim’s selfless heroism. 

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