They stood in the Main Mall, looking up at the Tower, stretching 307 feet into the clear blue sky. The flags were lowered to half-staff.
Fifty years earlier, they were avoiding the tower in every way possible: Scrambling around campus. Hiding behind cars. Sheltered inside buildings. Still staring at the tower as Charles Whitman unleashed a massacre on those below, killing 14 people and an unborn child and injuring over 30 others.
Ninety-six minutes of hell that, even after 50 years, those present can’t forget. So those connected to the UT Tower Shooting — victims, witnesses, relatives of those who died — gathered at the Main Mall to remember.
Claire Wilson James, the first person Whitman shot from the observation deck, stood at the Main Mall, as the clock struck 11:48 a.m. and stopped. That’s the time a bullet pierced her abdomen and killed her baby. A few minutes later, her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, was killed.
A bag-piper began playing and James, with her sister to her left, President Gregory Fenves to her right, Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who was UT’s student body president in 1967, and Jim Bryce at her back, started walking. Wilson walked past the spot she lay, bleeding and hurting, until she was saved.
They walked past the tower, through a crowd of about 100 people, who parted like the red sea.
They gathered under a white tent at the turtle pond and near the new memorial: a sunset red granite stone with the names of Whitman’s 17 victims sandblasted onto the face.
“We come together to remember that tragic day in history of our cherished University,” Fenves said. “We come together to memorialize the 17 lives lost. And we come together — students, professors, staff members, community members and friends — to honor you, the survivors, whose lives were forever altered 50 years ago.”
“This campus attack was unprecedented,” Doggett said. “I think it was as unexpected, for us in the university community and for our police department, as if some flying saucer had landed up there on top of the Tower.”
After James, Doggett and Bryce spoke, the names of those killed were read aloud in the order they appear on the memorial. The tower rang once after each name. Tears were shed. A harp played.
“I’m going to go see the memorial,” Alfred McAlister, a Plan II Honors professor and witness to the shooting, said. “I haven’t seen it.”
He walked to the memorial, and sat on the marble stone bench. He took a picture. Others circled around it and took photos. The memorial was surrounded by flowers.
The sun shined. The wind blew. But this time, the tower didn’t ring. There was just silence.
A few hours later, inside the Eastview room of the Student Union, James, McAlister, Forrest Preece and Artly Snuff signed thank you letters for the memorial. Others affected by the shooting were also inside.
Meanwhile, Bryce spoke with Adam Leissner, the brother of Kathleen Whitman — Whitman’s wife.
They talked about the memorial, regarding the process of getting it placed and getting it built. Bryce talked about his speech.
Then he teared up. Leissner teared up as well.
“Come here,” Leissner said and they hugged.
They let go, tears still in their eyes, and hugged again.
Watch The Daily Texan's video recap of the memorial ceremony here.