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University Of Texas Shooting Survivors Share Memories 50 Years Later

It's been 50 years since 16 people were shot and killed by a sniper shooting from the clock tower at the University of Texas. Three survivors share their stories of that day. These interviews came to us from Texas Standard, based at KUT Austin, which was involved in producing an hour-long documentary about the tower shooting.

TRANSCRIPT

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Before Sandy Hook, before Virginia Tech, before Columbine, there was the University of Texas. Fifty years ago today, just before noon, a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Charles Whitman took his guns up to the top of the tower at the center of campus and started shooting at the people below.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to hear now from three people who were there.

JOHN FOX: It was real hot that day. It was - I think it was a hundred-degree day.

CORNISH: That's John Fox. He calls himself Artly Snuff. Back then he was an incoming freshman. He was at a friend's place, playing chess and listening to the radio.

MCEVERS: Clif Drummond was the student body president. He was buying lab supplies for a pharmacy class.

CLIF DRUMMOND: I finished up at about five minutes before 12 and began walking up the west mall, and I heard what I knew to be rifle shots.

MCEVERS: The first shot hit Claire Wilson, an anthropology major who was eight months pregnant. She and her boyfriend Tom Eckman were walking across campus to put a nickel in the parking meter.

CLAIRE WILSON-JAMES: We were chatting. And then I started falling, and I thought I was electrocuted. And Tom reached out to try to help me. He saw something was wrong 'cause I was falling. And then he started falling, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Police operator...

MICHAEL HALL: Hello, this is Michael Hall at the history department on the university campus.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: Yes, Sir.

HALL: There's just been a gunshot on the main plaza outside the main building and at least one person wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED OPERATOR: On the main plaza.

HALL: Yes.

FOX: We were playing chess, listening to our KNOW Radio, the top 40 station. They played The Beach Boys and The Beatles. And we were listening, and somebody came on the - one of the DJs came on the radio there shortly before noon and said that there was somebody with an air rifle on top of the tower. And we thought that sounded more exciting than what we were doing, so we went over to campus. The firing of the rifle we could hear from the moment we entered campus.

WILSON-JAMES: I thought the war in Vietnam has broken out, and it's, you know, right here now. We're at war. And I felt like I was actually melting into the concrete.

DRUMMOND: Having grown up in West Texas on a farm, I knew what the sound of a rifle sounded like. And the sound was ricocheting off of the buildings, so it wasn't clear where they were coming from. I thought, this is going to be really bad. And it turned out it was worse than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's a man on top the tower with a rifle shooting at people. We've got five wounded so they've reported.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ten-four - I'll be right down there.

FOX: So we rushed into the Cent Hall, and through the windows, you can look out and see people were lying on the mall and needed help.

WILSON-JAMES: I heard some people yell out for their mothers, you know, some men just yell out, Mama.

DRUMMOND: I ran into a friend of mine, Bob Higley (ph), and I told Bob that somebody was shooting, that a lot of kids were down. And so I said, you want to go with me? I'm going to go see if I can help.

WILSON-JAMES: Somebody said, we've got to get help for that pregnant woman. And somebody yelled back, no, we have to get the ones there's hope for. And so I thought, OK (laughter).

DRUMMOND: We could see a young man sitting, leaning against a parking meter, and he was directly across from us. The last thing I said to Bob before we crossed the drag was, zigzag. And so the two of us, on the count of three, took off running. That's when the shooter saw us and started firing at us.

But we were running pretty fast. I remember that - the chips of payment coming up near me. Neither Bob nor I were hit. We both went to this young man, and when we got close to him, it was clear that he was dead. I mean it was a headshot.

FOX: I looked back at the people that were still lying on the mall. One of them - she was obviously very pregnant, and I could tell she was alive 'cause she was moving. Her legs were moving, and I worried that if the shooter on the tower saw her, that she might be shot again.

WILSON-JAMES: I was looking up at the clock all the time. You know, I just watched the clock and heard every 15 minutes, you know, the little tune that it plays.

FOX: She was obviously wounded. The people around her looked dead. And the tower kept chiming every 15 minutes. And I would think, 15 more minutes they've been out there, 15 more minutes. It seemed like time passed very slow. I knew I might die when I went out, but it was intolerable to leave those people lying out there.

James (ph) was right next to me - James Love (ph). James and I ran from there straight out to the people that were lying on the middle of the mall. I knew I might die when I ran out. I'd never been more scared. I grabbed Claire's ankles, and James grabbed her wrists. We picked her up and started carrying her to safety.

WILSON-JAMES: Oh, I was just so, so happy because I thought I was going to die there. And that he came up, you know - it was just like there is - now there is hope.

FOX: We carried Claire to safety, and four or five other students took her down to where the ambulance was.

WILSON-JAMES: And so I just - you know, I was just - felt like there was a chance now, you know, to live.

DRUMMOND: At about that time, word was filtering around pretty rapidly that the shooter had been shot and killed. Several people said, they got him; they got him. For the next year or so, whenever I was walking across campus, I would know where I was in relation to what happened that day. I knew where the spot is where Claire and Tom were shot. I knew where the girl hid behind the base of the flag pole. And to this day 50 years later, I could still take you to those places.

FOX: You could also see - from where I was for that hour, you could see the inscription on the south side of the main building. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. And to me, one of the truths I discovered that day are there is monsters that live among us. There are people that think unthinkable thoughts and do unthinkable things.

WILSON-JAMES: My beautiful sister Lucy (ph) - she uses the metaphor of a tree being struck by lightning. Some of them are totally pulverized and don't grow anymore. They're dead. And some have a big scar. And I've got two really big scars on my body. And they have a big scar, but you know, they're still living.

MCEVERS: That was Claire Wilson-James. Wilson-James was in the hospital for three months. Though she survived, she lost her baby. Her boyfriend Tom Eckman died, too.

CORNISH: We also heard from Artly Snuff and Clif Drummond. Both Drummond and Wilson-James were part of a committee behind a new memorial unveiled today at the University of Texas. It lists the names of the 17 people killed.

MCEVERS: These interviews came to us from Texas Standard based at KUT Austin. They've produced an hour-long documentary about the tower shooting. Listen at towerhistory.org.

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