AUSTIN, Texas – Neal Spelce was scrounging for news to fill his Austin station’s noon radio broadcast when he heard this announcement on the police scanner: “We have a report of a shot being fired at the University of Texas.”
That message, on Aug. 1, 1966, didn’t even begin to capture the magnitude of the tragedy about to rock the sleepy college town.
Charles Whitman, an architectural engineering major and U.S. Marine sniper, had climbed the campus clock tower and launched a killing spree now considered the first “mass shooting” in modern American history.
A new documentary film, “Tower,” captures the sense of confusion and carnage that permeates many major acts of violence. But it also illustrates how unprecedented such events were back then — a stark contrast to more recent massacres that have become almost chillingly common.
Director Keith Maitland tells the story using animation spliced with news photographs and footage, radio clips and testimonials provided chiefly by eight survivors. Among them is Spelce, then news director for KTBC-TV, who soon after that initial report was in a station vehicle, broadcasting on radio as he drove toward the sniper.
“It was really an unbelievable scene, unlike anything anyone had ever seen before and you didn’t have any frame of reference,” Spelce, then 30, said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t like today. There was no police tape marking anything off. No authority saying ‘Stand back.’ We were able to go straight onto the campus.”
The documentary has begun opening in theatres nationally, five decades after an attack in which Whitman, then 25, killed 13 people and wounded nearly three dozen others. He had killed his wife and mother prior to heading to the tower, one victim died a week later and medical examiners eventually attributed a 17th death to Whitman in 2001.
Rather than focusing on the sniper, though, the documentary explores what it was like on the ground during his rampage. Men, women and a newspaper delivery boy were shot without warning, before they even knew to be afraid — and some survived. Some scrambled for any cover they could find in the nearly 100-degree heat. Police and ordinary Texans would eventually rush to get their own guns and fire back, in vain, at Whitman from the ground.
The sniper’s face doesn’t appear in animation; only his legs are shown after he’s killed by police and a store manager who made their way to the top of the clock tower. Whitman’s name isn’t mentioned until more than hour into the film.
“I felt like really every other newspaper article, magazine article, the one bad TV movie and other kinds of basic-cable, true-crime investigations were always about the sniper and trying to unravel his motivations,” Maitland said, panning a 1975 Kurt Russell made-for-TV offering called “The Deadly Tower.”
“We would never know the answers to those questions,” he added. “But what was answerable was what it was like to survive.”
When the shooting started, a TV station near to the clock tower rolled a camera close — some say it was onto a balcony, others remember it as by an open window. The footage, which Maitland said hadn’t been previously accessed since the 1970s, appears in the documentary and provides the much of the visceral, seemingly endless sounds of booming gunfire throughout it. Authorities would later say Whitman had 700 rounds of ammunition, though how many times he fired between around 11:48 a.m., as the attack began, and when he was killed about 90 minutes later is unknown.
Claire Wilson James had just finished an anthropology test when she and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, began walking through campus to put a nickel in the meter where their Volkswagen was parked. The 18-year-old was eight months pregnant and describes in the film being shot and feeling her baby stop moving — then lying on the blistering pavement beside Eckman’s body.
Bystanders carried James to safety eventually, knowing they too could be shot at any instant. Another of the documentary’s stars, John “Artly” Fox, said at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival in March that the rescuers figured they had a 75 per cent chance of survival since the tower’s observation deck was four-sided. While Whitman was firing from all four, he couldn’t be more than one place at once.
James spent seven weeks in intensive care. She resumed classes the following January and said she never felt “horror or trauma” returning to campus — but eventually left school anyway.
“It seems like you’re with the love of your life and I’m going to have a baby in another month or so, and then, all of a sudden, everything’s gone,” Jones, who now lives in Texarkana, Texas, said in a phone interview. “I just felt a lot of loneliness.”
Maitland said many mass killings prior to Whitman’s had clearer motives. What occurred at the University of Texas was targeting people with no connection to the sniper.
“These random public acts are the most terrifying because there’s nothing you can do to prevent them. There’s no amount of vigilance you can have with somebody, especially a long-range sniper,” Maitland said. “That’s where the real turning point is in the story of public crime.”