On the morning of Aug. 1, 1966, gunshots could be heard throughout central Austin as Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former UT student, opened fire from the 28th floor observation deck of the UT Tower. Before he was shot and killed by police 90 minutes later, he had gunned down 45 people, killing 14.
The first victim arrived at University Medical Center Brackenridge at 12:12 p.m., and victims continued to arrive at a rate of one every two minutes during the first hour. As the tragedy unfolded, Austin’s first responders recognized the city’s strengths in emergency care—as well as its potential for growth.
At a remembrance ceremony this morning, UMC Brackenridge honored the victims, as well as the medical and law-enforcement personnel who worked tirelessly through the tragedy. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, Texas Sen. Kirk Watson, and Helen Brewer, chair of the Seton Healthcare Family Board of Trustees, unveiled a recently rediscovered artifact: a plaque presented by the Austin Police Department to Brackenridge in 1966 commending the hospital staff. The plaque will be permanently displayed at the hospital.
Neal Spelce, a local reporter who covered the UT Tower shooting live, described the scene 46 years ago as unlike anything seen before or since. The air was filled with sirens and searing summer heat, as calculated gunshots rained down from the Tower.
The shooter “knew what he was doing,” Spelce said at the ceremony. “You could hear cries, people yelling ‘I’m hit’ or people yelling, ‘Help him! He’s hurt!’”
Spelce said the shooting has remained in the public consciousness because of film footage and an ever-present visual reminder: the UT Tower, which still bears bullet scars.
“Every time something tragic like this happens, we need to approach it as we would other historical events,” says Gary Lavergne, author of the 1997 book A Sniper in the Tower, “to see whether or not there’s something we can learn from this in our quest to try and prevent things like this from happening,”
More recent mass shootings like those in Aurora, Columbine, and Virginia Tech, Lavergne says, illustrate that why people commit these crimes is still a mystery.
“Unfortunately, what we do know is that there is a profile and a pattern related to the people who do these terrible things,” Lavergne says. “The problem is we only know about it in hindsight.”
The Tower shooting did have a silver lining: the tragedy jumpstarted UMC Brackenridge’s quest to create a trauma center. In 1996, the hospital earned the Level Two trauma center designation, and, in 2009, it was upgraded to Level One. At today’s ceremony, hospital officials announced its redesignation of Level One (redesignations occur every three years).
Sen. Kirk Watson speaks at this morning’s remembrance ceremony at UMC Brackenridge.
Photo by Marc Swendner, Seton Healthcare Family