August 1, 1966 | Texas Tower Shooting

 
 

"I got on the elevator and pressed the button for the twenty-seventh floor. By that time I was starting to feel pretty uneasy, because I wasn’t seeing any other officers. As a Catholic, I was taught to ask the good Lord for forgiveness if I thought my life might be in danger. And so as I was going up in the elevator, watching those little numbers light up, I decided to say an Act of Contrition. Then I pulled out my .38 and pointed it at the elevator doors. I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got to the top of the Tower.”

-Officer Ramiro Martinez, Austin (TX) Police Department

Officer Ramiro Martinez of the Austin (TX) Police Department was at home fixing himself a steak lunch when he heard the news of a sniper shooting from the top of the University of Texas Tower. He put on his uniform, rushed to the campus, and soon found himself in a lonely elevator ride to the top of the tower. When those elevator doors swung open, Officer Martinez was relieved to find not the sniper, but a single police officer, Jerry Day, and civilian Allen Crum. They were soon joined by Officer Houston McCoy.

Realizing it was up to them to stop the sniper, the men made their way out onto the observation deck. They passed the lifeless bodies of some of the sniper's earliest victims, stopping only briefly to move a wounded woman, so she would not drown in her own blood. The officers described the gunfire from the tower as sounding like rolling thunder. As Officers Martinez and McCoy turned the northeast corner of the tower, they saw the sniper about 40 feet away taking aim at a victim below. Both officers emptied their weapons and the sniper went down.

It was later determined that the sniper was 25-year-old ex-Marine, Charles Whitman. He had stabbed his wife and mother prior to making his way to the University Tower with a footlocker loaded with weapons, ammunition, and some food. During the 96-minutes that he held the tower, he shot 43 people, killing 14.

The killing in Austin introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public place. Police departments analyzed the events of the day to find better ways to respond to this kind of crisis. The people who were there that day almost fifty years ago found ways to cope with the trauma, though it was an event that never left them. One witness described the intense scene that followed the sniper's death.

"When I had reached a spot near the steps of the Academic Center, a weird tableau of three men walking west, against the grain, parted us like the Red Sea, slowing me for a few seconds. I instantly knew who they were and what they had done—that they had killed, or somehow stopped, the shooter. In the middle was a Hispanic police officer who seemed to be in a state of shock. His uniform was soaked through, as if someone had hosed him down. His eyes were locked into the thousand-yard stare. Two men were holding him up. The man on his left was whispering soothing words to him as they walked past: “You did okay, buddy. Ease up. You did okay. It’s all right.”*

 

*Quoted in “96 Minutes” by Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly, August 2006