NPR logo

'Tower' Pays Tribute To A 1966 Campus Shooting That Was 'Pushed Aside'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/514001421/514140241" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Tower' Pays Tribute To A 1966 Campus Shooting That Was 'Pushed Aside'

Movie Interviews

'Tower' Pays Tribute To A 1966 Campus Shooting That Was 'Pushed Aside'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/514001421/514140241" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week visiting family. School shootings have become a sad fact of life in recent years. Today, we'll revisit one that's often forgotten.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEAL SPELCE: This is Neal Spelce in Red Rover on the University of Texas campus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is a warning to the citizens of Austin. Stay away from the university area.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPELCE: Stay away from the university area. There is a sniper on the university Tower firing at will.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

DAVIES: In August of 1966, a student and former Marine named Charles Whitman ascended to the top of the Tower that housed the University of Texas' main library and began shooting at people below. Fifteen died as a result of the university attacks, including an unborn child. Thirty-one others were wounded. Hours earlier, Whitman had killed his wife and mother in their homes. He was eventually shot to death by police. Much has been written about Whitman's crimes and his troubled life.

But a new documentary tells the story from the point of view of those in Austin who experienced the 96-minute ordeal. It's called "Tower," and director Keith Maitland tells the story in an original way. He combines archival film and new interviews with an animated portrayal of the events. The film is based in part on a 2006 oral history by Pamela Colloff, which ran in the Texas Monthly magazine. A little later, we'll hear from Claire Wilson James, the first person shot from the tower. But first we speak with director Keith Maitland.

He's a longtime Austin resident who graduated from the university. He directed the Emmy-nominated film "The Eyes Of Me" about four blind teenagers and was an assistant director on NBC's "Law & Order" for seven seasons. "Tower" premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Tuesday, Feb. 14.

Well, Keith Maitland, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's go back, Aug. 1, 1966. Set the scene for us. Tell us what happened.

KEITH MAITLAND: Well, it was a Monday. And it was the second session of summer school for the summer. And by all accounts, it was a typical hot, clear Monday morning. You know, in our film, we start with a story of Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman. They're incoming freshmen who are taking summer school classes. They just got out of an anthropology test. They went over to the student union to the Chuck Wagon, which was a cafeteria, you know, cafe of sorts.

They needed to walk across campus to put a nickel in the meter. And while they were walking across the big open plaza under the Tower, the South Mall, a shot rang out. And it hit Claire and she fell. And then a second shot rang out and it hit Tom in the neck and he fell beside her. And from that point forward, our story unfolds, which is the story of dozens of people being shot, hundreds of people being in harm's way and thousands of people watching this horrible situation unfold with no idea what actually is happening because the gunman, a sniper at the top of a 27-story tower, can't be seen.

He can't be heard. And nobody knows what he wants or why he's doing it. They just know they need to find a way to survive and get through what turned into over an hour and a half tragedy.

DAVIES: Now, the observation deck atop that tower - I went to the University of Texas, so I've been there. It wraps around the circumference of the tower. There's a balcony there so that the sniper could point to the west and find victims and then go around to the east side and find other victims. And he had a huge area to find targets, which probably made it much harder for people to realize what was happening.

MAITLAND: Yeah, Austin in 1966 is still a relatively small town. And the tower is by far kind of the central tall building, you know, at the center of the campus. And so with a 360 degree view of the campus and the surrounding hilly area, he had an incredible amount of targets to choose from, an incredible amount of area to dominate.

And you're absolutely right, if you were on the ground and he was facing the other direction on one of the other facets of the observation deck, you'd really have no idea what was happening.

DAVIES: Let's listen to a clip from the film. And this is part of a live radio broadcast that is preserved from that day, a guy named Neal Spelce. You want to just explain a bit about him and what we're going to hear?

MAITLAND: Neal was just a news director working at the local TV/radio station downtown when he heard it on the police scanner. Neal ended up getting into a station wagon that was equipped with a mobile transmitter and he broadcast live from the scene. You know, his expectation as he was driving towards the campus is that he'd be reporting on an event that was already over, on a crime that had been committed. But he found as he pulled onto the campus that the shooting continued all around him.

And so his kind of first-person perspective, his news reporting became the voice of the event.

DAVIES: OK, let's listen to a bit of this. This is from the film "Tower" directed by our guest, Keith Maitland.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOWER")

SPELCE: He knocked a boy off a bicycle, he shot windows out of the Texas Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SPELCE: More ambulances are screaming up and down the university Drag. And the ambulances are apparently carrying those persons that we had reported as lying on the sidewalk shot in front of the Varsity Theater and other buildings along the university Drag. The university area has been cordoned off. And so far, we've had reports of people being shuttled to the hospital via ambulances from practically all the funeral homes in the city.

DAVIES: And that is the radio reporter, news director Neil Spelce in 1966 narrating the shooting at the University of Texas Tower. That's from the film "Tower," directed by our guest Keith Maitland. His broadcast actually ended up getting picked up live by radio stations and TV stations around the country, didn't it?

MAITLAND: Yeah. There's no way to know exactly how many stations picked it up, but his voice was carried through the airwaves across central Texas and one by one, radio stations picked up that signal and carried it across the nation. And so we've heard from people who remember listening to that live report from all over. And it really was a huge national live breaking news event as it was unfolding.

I think because it lasted so long - you know, people aren't used to getting the story as it was unfolding at that point in time. And they did because of Neal.

DAVIES: You can sense in that broadcast the terror of the situation. I mean, no one knew what to expect or how big it was or what exactly was happening. But it was obviously terrifying. This came at a time when random shootings were not common. I mean, people today have experienced so many of these. And I'm wondering how you think that affected the perceptions and reactions of people on the ground - students, teachers, others.

MAITLAND: Well, you know, I've talked to hundreds of people who were there that day, and one of the things they always want to make clear is how unprecedented this was. Everybody who was there had a moment of realization when they recognize that they really didn't know what was happening at first. And then when they did realize, they had a decision to make. And, you know, one of the people we interviewed said she thought it was fireworks leftover from the Fourth of July just three weeks earlier.

You know, we live in a world today where you hear a loud sound that sounds like a gunshot in a public space and it doesn't take long to kind of assume that there's something happening that you don't want to be a part of, to protect yourself, to run and hide. But in 1966 on this, you know, hot Monday morning here in Austin, people were surprised. They were confused. And so it made the sniper's job a lot easier to catch people unaware.

DAVIES: Yeah, it was a new, unprecedented event for just about everybody. And although it's interesting, this was within three years of the Kennedy assassination, which involved a sniper a couple hundred miles away up in Dallas.

MAITLAND: Yeah, and the, you know, the specter of the Kennedy assassination, you know, loomed large over the Tower shooting and people's reaction to it both here in Texas and across the country. You know, Austin didn't want to end up being seen the way Dallas was after the Kennedy assassination. And I think that's a big part of the reason why this history has gone kind of unrecognized for the last 50 years.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, I started at the University of Texas five years later and it was never talked about. There was no plaque, there was no memorial. I can only remember one conversation in four years there about it. And that was from a woman who happened to have been there.

MAITLAND: The idea that this was never talked about, that's something that began really the day after the shooting. You know, the University of Texas shut down for one day. And they cleaned up the blood. They spackled as many of the bullet holes as they could find, and then classes resumed. That year, in 1966, there was no mention of the Tower shooting at graduation. There's no mention of it in the school yearbook. There was no memorial to the students. It really was pushed into the shadows. And people were encouraged, you know, to move forward and - and not linger, you know, in the terrible tragedy of that day. And looking back, I think that was a mistake. And I think that that - that cost people who were there that day, people who were traumatized by the event. It cost them an opportunity to deal with that trauma.

DAVIES: Yeah, I want to talk about that a bit more as we - as we meet some of these folks. I want to meet one of the police officers, Ramiro Martinez, who was actually off that morning and, when he heard of the events, reported to the campus. And what we'll hear here is him describing making his way onto campus. And these are the actual words of the young Officer Martinez. They're voiced in the film by the actor Louie Arnette. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOWER")

LOUIE ARNETTE: (As Ramiro Martinez) I tried to keep myself from being able to see the top of the tower because I knew if I could see the top of the tower, the sniper could see me. I ran until I got to the South Mall, by the Jefferson Davis statue.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ARNETTE: (As Ramiro Martinez) There were wounded people and dead people, people's whose conditions I did not know lying there on the sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ARNETTE: (As Ramiro Martinez) There was a pregnant woman that was twisting and wilting in the hot sun.

DAVIES: And the pregnant woman that he refers to, of course, is Claire Wilson. You know, this might be a moment to talk about the technique of of you telling the story here because we're hearing the actual words of Ramiro Martinez, who was an officer there. But they're read by an actor. And people are seeing this on the screen in a kind of animation, you know. The standard documentary filmmaking technique is you rely on archival footage and then contemporary interviews with folks who remember the events. Tell us about your approach to telling this story.

MAITLAND: Well, the thing that always struck me about this story is how long the shooting lasted and how many people were impacted. And so...

DAVIES: Which was just over an hour and a half, right?

MAITLAND: That's right. The shooting went on for 96 minutes. That's a tremendous amount of time. I mean, when we think of gun violence, you think of it happening in a matter of moments or - or seconds, or even split seconds. I wanted to kind of steep the audience in that time period and in what it felt like on that hot day to be a student, to be Ramiro Martinez or Neal Spelce or Claire Wilson trapped there, being held hostage by the sniper and being, you know, oppressed by the heat and feeling and hearing those gunshots all around them. And so the goal was to create an immersive experience through this documentary.

DAVIES: A compelling part of the film is when we see Claire, who is pregnant and seriously wounded, lying on the South Mall of the Texas campus. A young woman named Rita comes up and just crawls up and sits next to her and comforts her and keeps her talking. Talk a little bit about her and that part of the story.

MAITLAND: I love talking about Rita because it's really her story that made me want to make this film. What Rita does that day is, in my estimation, the most humane and the most heroic action, really, I've ever heard of. You have to realize, Claire is laying at the center of this exposed plaza, which is about the size of half a football field. And she's right in the middle.

DAVIES: And it's right under the tower, right.

MAITLAND: It's directly under the tower. It couldn't be a more ideal target. So nobody can get out there to help Claire without just being completely open and at risk for a long time, to get out there and to get back. But about 20 minutes into the shooting, Claire recalls a redheaded coed come running up. And she stands over Claire, and she asks her, what can I do to help you? And Claire tells her to get out of there, that it's not safe. And as gunshots continue to ring out, Rita doesn't go and run for cover. She - she hits the deck. She lays there by Claire's feet.

And for the next hour, Rita lies there, completely exposed on this plaza, on this mall. And she talks to Claire. Claire credits her for keeping her conscious with her questions and her conversation. And - and she's a comforting figure who gives completely of herself while risking everything just to help her fellow human being. And when I read that story in the Texas Monthly article 10 years ago, I thought, somebody should make a movie about this. This is what it is to be a person. This is what it is to be a hero.

DAVIES: Keith Maitland directed the new documentary, "Tower." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Keith Maitland. He directed the new documentary film, "Tower" about the sniper shootings on the University of Texas campus in 1966.

Well, one of the stories that runs through this is the story of Claire Wilson, who - an 18-year-old woman who was pregnant and was shot on the South Mall, near the University of Texas Tower. Her boyfriend lay dead next to her, but she was seriously wounded. And we're going to hear a remarkable story here about a guy named John Fox. He has the nickname Artly, right? Just tell us who he was and how he got to the campus that day.

MAITLAND: Yeah, Artly was a 17-year-old incoming freshman. He was taking summer school to get English out of the way. He's from Austin. He grew up here, just a few miles from the campus. And on the day of the shooting, he had just gotten out of class, was hanging out with a friend, James Love, in his freshman dorm just off campus. And they were listening to the radio. And they heard about the shooting on campus. And, like two adventurous 17-year-olds, they decide to head towards the action on campus to see what's going on. Of course, neither one of them have any idea of what they're walking into.

DAVIES: Right, and then they end up in a situation where they're seeing people who've been shot lying around, including Claire who is wounded and pregnant, lying out in the open in this heat. And Artly eventually, with his friend, musters the courage to go and rescue Claire. And we're going to hear a clip from the film where that happens. And what we're going to hear is the young Artly, in the voice of actor Seamus Bolivar-Ochoa, describing what's happening. And then - and I think this is a great moment in the film - we're going to hear a segue to the real Artly recalling the events in an interview decades later. This clip begins with the wounded Claire lying on the - on the Mall in the voice of actress Violett Beane.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOWER")

VIOLETT BEANE: (As Claire Wilson) I just remember looking up at the sky - it was so blue - and just thinking...

CLAIRE WILSON JAMES: I guess this is the end.

SEAMUS BOLIVAR-OCHOA: (As John Fox) That's when I decided to go out there. We had to move fast. We knew that. You could see there was a camera. Time moved strangely, slowly.

BEANE: (As Claire Wilson, gasping).

BOLIVAR-OCHOA: (As John Fox) I grabbed Claire's feet. James grabbed Claire's arms.

BEANE: (As Claire Wilson) Tom. Tom.

BOLIVAR-OCHOA: (As John Fox) I've never been more scared.

JOHN FOX: (Laughter) I've never been more scared. And we ran them off. We ran her into safety to lie in the hedge and set her down. And other people took her where the ambulances were.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOT)

FOX: There's a - there's a cold spot that I can feel in my back right now. And when I think about it, it's about the size of a grape. It's halfway up my spine. It's halfway between my shoulder blades, and it's the place I expected the bullet to come in.

DAVIES: And that was John, Artly, Fox recalling the events in the University of Texas campus in 1966 when a sniper shot dozens of people, and he managed to rescue Claire Wilson who was wounded on the Texas campus.

That's a remarkable moment there, and you make the decision later on in the film to bring in the voices of these participants in modern times when they're actually remembering them. You want to just talk a little bit about when you do that and why?

MAITLAND: Yeah. You know, we kind of made a decision for the film that we would present that first hour, you know, through the artifice of animation and in this style and in this technique that would really place people in 1966 on that hot day. But it never lost meaning, and it never left our attention that these real people exist. They live in the world today, and they've been carrying this story with them for 50 years. And so the clip you just played, you hear both Claire and Artly in the moment that we do what we call the handoff from the young actors portraying them in animation to the current-day, live-action interviews.

DAVIES: Yeah, and it's so striking to hear Artly say that, all these decades later, he feels the cold spot on his back where he expected the bullet to hit. How much had he talked about this event over the years? Do you know?

MAITLAND: Almost not at all. Artly is actually a fairly well-known figure in the Austin creative arts scene. He's a longtime member of a rollicking, good-time band called the Uranium Savages that have been in existence since 1972, kind of an Austin party band. He was the curator of the Austin - popular culture museum in South Austin. You know, he's a well-known figure to a lot of people in Austin.

But it really wasn't until the last couple of years leading up to this 50th anniversary of the shooting that people who'd known Artly, you know, for decades found out about the events of that day and his connection.

And amazingly he had never had an opportunity to meet or talk to Claire, the young woman he rescued, until right before the making of the film. And so it was the day that I reached out to Claire to ask her if she'd be willing to participate, if she'd talk to me about this, if we could make a film together, that she said, you know, there must be something in the air because just last month I met the young man who rescued me. And we've become fast friends. And I'd love for you to meet him. And so that's Artly.

DAVIES: Keith Maitland directed the new documentary film "Tower," which premieres on "Independent Lens" on PBS Tuesday, February 14.

After a break, we'll hear more from Maitland, and we'll meet Claire Wilson James, the first person shot from the tower that day. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLE HUNTER'S "LATIN FOR TRAVELERS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Keith Maitland, who directed the new documentary film "Tower," about the sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. The film premieres on "Independent Lens" on PBS Tuesday, February 14.

The shooting here went on for a long time, an hour and a half. How did the police respond?

MAITLAND: Well, you know, they had never done any sort of Training for this. For a little bit of background, this is before the development of SWAT teams. This is before, you know, police tactics have advanced to the point that they are certainly today. Austin it's kind of a sleepy college town. And Austin's police force really isn't prepared for anything even remotely like this. The police brass, their initial reaction was to set up a perimeter around the campus. And so they kept people from approaching campus. And they did their best to shuttle people to safety who were near the perimeter. But there was no concerted effort, at least within the first moments of the shooting and really the first hour, to get a strike team together or any kind of dedicated force up to the top of that tower.

So what we end up with are four men out on that tower deck to approach the sniper. The first one out the door is Ramiro Martinez, who's an off-duty cop who, on his own volition, ends up kind of running in a zigzag pattern to the tower, getting up the elevator and realizing he's the first one who has the idea to stick his head out the door onto that observation deck. He's joined by a bookstore manager, Allen Crum, who works at the university co-op. And Crum is an Air Force veteran. And so he has some training. But he ends up in the tower through a series of circumstances, offers his help to Martinez and, in the last moments before going out on the deck, is deputized to help in any way he can.

And then shortly behind Crum come Houston McCoy and Jerry Day, two other on-duty officers who had both been on campus for a while, trying to figure out the best way to get up to the top of the tower, the best way to take on this menace. But a big part of the problem is that there was almost no communication available to these officers. In 1966 in Austin, police had radio units in their cars. But as soon as they left their car, they had no way to communicate with headquarters, with each other. And so they were all, you know, basically on their own.

DAVIES: And so they went in. And they found the sniper, shot him, and that was the end of it.

MAITLAND: Yeah, that's - that's basically how it ended, is, you know, Martinez exits the door on the on the tower observation deck that faces south. And he takes a blind left turn, poking his head around a corner, finds that the sniper is not on the east facet. And as he's making his way across the eastern wall of the - of the observation deck, McCoy appears behind him with a shotgun.

Martinez is thrilled to see that he's got backup and that his backup has more than just a 38 revolver, which is what Martinez had on him. As the two men approach another turn, Martinez wheeled around the corner, spotted the sniper and opened fire with his revolver. McCoy was behind him with a shotgun and blasted him as well. And they ended the siege.

DAVIES: One thing that you do include in the film is the number of citizens who showed up with weapons and fired back - more than a few.

MAITLAND: Yeah. You know, this story, kind of one of the main things that's always been kind of associated with the Tower shooting is how, you know, kind of the good ole boys from the Texas hills all grabbed the guns out of the back of their pickup truck and ran to campus. It's one of these things that, as I interviewed - at this point now, my team has interviewed over 200 people who were there that day. We've only ever talked to two people who went and got guns and came back to campus. But if you listen to the audio of that day, you can hear gunshots of different calibers and different ranges ringing out throughout the hour-plus, you know, long shooting. And so there were definitely people firing back from the streets, from behind trees, from inside campus buildings and on the rooftops.

DAVIES: Did they have an effect, do you know?

MAITLAND: They had multiple effects. You know, there are people who hold up this day as an example of a time when a good guy with a gun showed up and really helped the police. They pinned down the sniper. And people say, well, the sniper did most of the damage in the first 20 minutes of the shooting. And then after the people started showing up with guns, he didn't have as easy a time taking clear shots. And he didn't have, you know, free reign of the space up there. He had to duck down. And he had to kind of be careful.

There are also people who say that the people with guns who showed up distracted the cops on the ground. I spoke to several police officers who said they would have made an attempt to get to the tower, but they spent most of their time disarming citizens who showed up with guns, people that they didn't trust to be helpful in that situation. You know, I've also talked to Artly, who rescued Claire. But he said he would have gone out earlier on that day if it hadn't been for the gunfire that was happening in a 360-degree panorama.

DAVIES: You know, this happens on the University of Texas campus. I recognize, you know, statues and steps and plazas, and so will anyone else who attended the campus or knows it. Has the university reacted to the film?

MAITLAND: Yeah, it took a while. You know, going all the way back to my freshman year on campus, I took a tour my first day. And I asked about the Tower shooting way back then, in 1994. And I remember the campus tour guide kind of rolled her eyes. And she said, you know, we're really not supposed to talk about that. And that has been the attitude for all these many years.

But finally, after the film premiered at South by Southwest on the 50th anniversary of the Tower shooting, we held a screening here in Austin, at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum. And the president of the university came to the screening. And he wrote me a really beautiful handwritten note thanking us for what we'd done. And I'm excited to say that in February, the university will officially be showing "Tower" on campus in an event that's free to all students.

DAVIES: There's a garden now dedicated to the victims - isn't there? - on campus.

MAITLAND: Yeah, that's another thing that happened, you know, kind of during the making of the film. Two years ago, Claire Wilson came to me. And she said, I wish that there was a memorial. Would you talk to the university? And I said, you know, Claire, I can't do that. I have to stay focused on making this film. But you can do that. And - and you and your colleagues and peers who were there that day have a real, you know, voice. And the university should listen to it. And so Claire, along with, you know, a committee of survivors, approached the university. And they requested the university acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the shooting and that they put into place a legitimate memorial.

And specifically, they wanted to list the names of the 17 people who were killed so that they wouldn't be lost to history and so that they wouldn't be forgotten. And it was an exciting moment, on August 1, 2016, when the university followed through on their promise to do that. And we were there. And Claire was there. And there were hundreds and hundreds of people, many of them from the community built by the film, but so many of them from Austin and from the UT community. And I know that there were representatives there of people who had been killed in Columbine and at Newtown. You know, there's a - there's a kind of a secondary community that's been formed of people who have survived events like this around the country through the years. And so I was very proud that the university followed through and that that memorial exists.

DAVIES: Keith Maitland, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MAITLAND: Happy to be here. Thank you so much, Dave.

DAVIES: Keith Maitland directed the new documentary film, "Tower." It premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Tuesday, February 14. Coming up, we'll meet Claire Wilson James, the first person shot from the tower in that attack. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Next we're going to hear from a survivor of the mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. Claire Wilson James was the first person shot by Charles Whitman from his perch atop the tower that housed the main campus library. He shot more than three dozen people, over the course of an hour and a half, before he was killed by police. Claire was 18 and pregnant that day, and she took three months to recover from her injuries. Today, she teaches at a Navajo reservation near Farmington, N.M.

Claire Wilson James, welcome to FRESH AIR. On this day, you and Tom were having coffee in the Student Union. I think you went out to feed a parking meter, right? Tell us what happened.

WILSON JAMES: Yeah. We - we saw some people that Tom wanted to talk to, that he hadn't seen for six years. But we knew we'd get a pink slip and not be able to park. And I - since I was so pregnant and that - there was a really big hill from our house to the school, we knew we had to go put a nickel in the meter. So we were walking. And for some reason, when I felt a big jolt, I thought I had stepped on a live wire, which - it doesn't make any sense. But I just couldn't understand why I felt this huge jolt. And Tom reached out to help me and said, baby, and those were the last words he ever said.

DAVIES: You and Tom fell down. You - I know that you said that your baby immediately stopped moving, and you could tell because at 8 months, it moved a lot. Tom - Tom...

WILSON JAMES: Well, I - I could - you know, as I lay there and had time to think about it, I did realize that.

DAVIES: Yeah. And when did you realize that this was gunfire from the tower?

WILSON JAMES: Probably about - after five or 10 minutes, I heard somebody yell out, somebody's shooting from the tower. And I heard people screaming. You know, like, there were men that were yelling out, mama, and - just like you hear that people do. So, you know, that's when I realized somebody was actually up there - I'd say about 10 minutes in.

DAVIES: It was almost a hundred degrees out. Were you in pain? Was it...

WILSON JAMES: Yeah, it was very hot. And I do think the shock protected me somewhat from that, but I don't really remember pain, just a - you know, a heaviness and a weight.

DAVIES: So while you're there waiting and un-rescued, a woman shows up. Tell us about her.

WILSON JAMES: Yes, Rita. Rita Jones was her name at the time. And Rita came up, and she bent over me and asked if she could help. And I said, no, no, get away because even though I had been longing for somebody to come help - and somebody had run up. And I had told him to go away too. But - and he did, but she - I just said, lie down, you know, lie down because I was afraid. I wish I could say I was afraid she got - would get shot. But I think I was just thinking I didn't want to get shot again. And she laid down and talked to me.

DAVIES: And how long did she stay there with you?

WILSON JAMES: One hour, until they came. Until Artly and John Fox and James Love came and picked me up. And they thought she was another dead one. And then she just got up and ran off.

DAVIES: So you were carried. You were loaded into an ambulance and taken to...

WILSON JAMES: Or a hearse, I think, maybe.

DAVIES: Right. I guess all the ambulance came from funeral parlors then.

WILSON JAMES: Yeah.

DAVIES: So you were taken to Breckenridge...

WILSON JAMES: (Unintelligible). Yeah.

DAVIES: ...Which must have been full of - of people. What do you remember of getting there? Were you still conscious?

WILSON JAMES: I was conscious when they got me in there. And they wanted to cut off my dress, and I didn't want them to. It was a really lovely dress that Tom had helped me pick out, a maternity dress. Then the orderly and the student nurse were consoling each other, and I was going, somebody console me. And then the obstetrician that - it was his first day in his residency. And he was - couldn't get a blood pressure. And I asked him if I were going to die, and he turned his face away. And I thought, well (laughter).

And then, apparently - I don't know this from memory, but Dr. Brian Forrester (ph) had been in a MASH unit and had a lot of experience with gunshot wounds in Korea. And so he grabbed the gurney of Karen Griffith and my gurney and said, there's not time for X-rays. They were trying to X-ray us. And he just got us in and started the operation on us.

DAVIES: Gosh, you know, I have to say this sounds like a metaphor for the - you know, the kind of psychological neglect of the victims here, that you've got people at the hospital consoling each other. And - and you can't get attention.

WILSON JAMES: Well, you know, the hospital, I must say, they were so selfless. And they've received very little attention for all of the incredible work they did. I mean, you know, they didn't have the experience, and it took a lot. They were just so incredible. They were just wonderful. But, you know, I think the larger metaphor is maybe that it was so raw for UT. And they were so scared and so worried about if - you know, that would become what UT was known for. I think that's a bigger metaphor, that - you know, they just decided, we won't talk about it. We won't put anything up until finally, you know, they put the little, tiny 9-by-17 bronze plaque that didn't say what had happened. And then, you know, it took 50 years.

And it's so sad because a lot of people have died that were involved, and only their children - and those children say their parents never talked about it. Allen Crum's son said it ruined his father's life, you know?

DAVIES: He was the man from the university bookstore who went up to the tower to...

WILSON JAMES: Yes, exactly - that brave, brave man. Houston McCoy, you know was, wracked with guilt for all those years. And Officer Martinez, when I met him, he told me - he put his arms on my shoulders and put his right finger up to his temple and said - wiggled it and said every night that he goes to sleep - he doesn't have nightmares - but he has this little worm that says, why didn't you stop and help Claire? I told him, you know, if you had, we probably wouldn't be alive. But it was against all of his training as a combat medic to go on past.

DAVIES: He was the officer who saw you on the Mall but then proceeded into the tower and...

WILSON JAMES: Exactly.

DAVIES: ...Eventually shot and killed Whitman and ended this tragedy.

WILSON JAMES: Yes, yes. And of course, McCoy helped, but it was Ramirez (ph) who kept going, didn't delay. He was off duty, and he just went, you know? And it was pretty remarkable.

DAVIES: You spent a long time in the hospital - seven weeks in intensive care when you couldn't have visitors, right? And then three months altogether. What were your injuries?

WILSON JAMES: Well, the bullet went into my side. He was clearly aiming at the baby. It went into my side, like, just about - along the same line as your navel would be. Then it fragmented, as I understand it, and so it - they had to take out 5 feet of intestine, my ovary. My uterus was just ripped apart, and the baby was hit in the head.

And they had to take out the iliac crest, which kind of connects some of your muscles. So if I'm tired, I walk with a limp. And there's a big canyon from my - oh, my waist to my pubis where they cut out. It was very unusual, but the doctor lobbied so that they could do this operation where they took out the bones that probably would have killed me from infection and the bones that were shattered. And then they laid it open and dripped antibiotic, and it was a huge, deep gauge.

And when I - they let me go, I still had to change those wounds. And then I - as it turned out, because of the transfusions, I got hepatitis C, which I'm happy to say after about four decades, there were no longer any traces of that.

DAVIES: My goodness. Wow. You were in the hospital, and when you came out, you had lost the baby that you'd carried for eight months. You'd lost the man you loved. You'd been through a horrific experience. You eventually finished college, not at UT. I know you lived a lot of different places and were married twice?

WILSON JAMES: Yes.

DAVIES: You adopted a son from Ethiopia.

WILSON JAMES: Yes.

DAVIES: Over these years, did you talk to either of your husbands or family or friends about this experience?

WILSON JAMES: No not really. We never did talk. You know, I asked somebody else, you know, an old boyfriend, if we had ever talked about it. And he said, well, it just never came up. And so I always kind of wondered what people thought because, you know, it's obvious. I mean, you know, I had a lot of scars and, you know, deep places. You know, I was really messed up from that on my torso.

And, you know, I asked somebody, why didn't we ever talk about this? And he said, well, I figured if you wanted to talk about it, you would bring it up. But I was always kind of embarrassed with my family, with anyone, like, they would think I was trying to get attention.

DAVIES: Claire Wilson James was the first person shot from the University of Texas Tower. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRYK GORECKI'S "SYMPHONY NO. 3 - II. LENTO E LARGO - TRANQUILLISSIMO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Claire Wilson James. She was the first person shot from the University of Texas Tower in a sniper attack in 1966. Her story is one of those told in the new documentary "Tower."

You know, after your experience, we didn't see school shootings for a long time.

WILSON JAMES: Right.

DAVIES: And then there was Columbine...

WILSON JAMES: Yes.

DAVIES: in 1999. I wonder how you...

WILSON JAMES: I was in D.C. at that time. That's where I lived.

DAVIES: How did you react when you heard about Columbine?

WILSON JAMES: I just went - oh, I don't know. I feel really guilty to tell you, to be honest. But I have to, you know. I mean, I just felt like - well, of course it was so tragic. But I felt those people, somebody's going to pay attention to it. You know, I felt somebody's going to talk to them about it. You know, they're going to be able to talk to each other about it. That was my - one of my strong reactions is that, you know, I can say what happened to me and tried to talk about it. But nobody has any idea about it. But I thought those people were going to get some help.

DAVIES: I read in an article that you have a yearning to lie down at that spot on the South Mall where you and Tom lay after you were shot. Is that true?

WILSON JAMES: Yeah, and I always thought it was really weird until Terry Gross had on one of her shows a story about under-investigated homicides in LA. And she interviewed a reporter who told about a mother who went and laid down where her son had been killed. And apparently that's a relatively not uncommon thing that people do, you know, when something like that happens. And I did do that once. And I think I did it twice...

DAVIES: And how did it feel?

WILSON JAMES: Yeah, I did it twice.

DAVIES: How did it feel?

WILSON JAMES: It felt wonderful 'cause it was just like being back there. And both times I was lucky enough that it was in the summer so it was warm.

DAVIES: You got in touch with a relative of the sniper, Charles Whitman. I wonder if you could explain why you wanted to do that and what you learned?

WILSON JAMES: Well, I got to do that because we were trying to get permission - we were trying to encourage the university to do this thing, so we took on the task of getting the legal names of everyone and how they wanted the names on. And so we were trying to put the name of Margaret, Charles' mother. So...

DAVIES: You were getting permission for the memorial, you're saying.

WILSON JAMES: Yes, yes, and how they wanted their name. And I think we didn't really need to do that, but we did do it. And so I got to be the one to contact Joanne (ph). And she was just a lovely woman with, you know, deep compassion for all of us and for her nephew. She said they were the ones that he called as a boy and as a young man when, you know, when he witnessed the abuse from his father.

DAVIES: So you feel compassion and forgiveness towards Charles Whitman?

WILSON JAMES: Oh, yes, I do. I totally do. I mean, as I got older, you know, and had more experience with things, I understood what it's like to have that kind of anger and unhappiness. And since I talked to his aunt and found out that he saw almost weekly his mother punched in the face, glasses broken and I began to understand what he lived with, you know, to me it's just a very damaged human being.

DAVIES: How many times have you seen the film, Claire?

WILSON JAMES: (Laughter) I think 18 now.

DAVIES: Yeah, do you keep learning things? Why do you see it...

WILSON JAMES: I do every time because, you know, when - you know, I lay there in the 90 minutes but since I was the first one outside that was shot, I didn't know what was happening and I didn't see all that and I didn't read anything. I couldn't talk to anyone who had been there. So, yeah, every single time I learn something new about it. And it's really fascinating. I don't feel any kind of trauma. The only thing I feel is just so much regret that the world lost Tom.

Bowling Green University, there's a box of his poems, writings and drawings and stories that I hope I get to see, you know, while I'm still alive. And I think he would have been such a remarkable human being. I just think the world lost a lot.

DAVIES: Well, Claire, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

WILSON JAMES: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: Claire Wilson James was the first person shot from the University of Texas Tower on Aug. 1, 1966. Today, she teaches at a Navajo Nation reservation near Farmington, N.M. Her story is one of those told in the documentary film "Tower." Earlier, we heard from the film's director Keith Maitland. "Tower" premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Tuesday, Feb. 14.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, what's ahead in health care. Correspondent Sarah Kliff says Republicans have the votes to scrap Obamacare but are finding it a tricky proposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH KLIFF: It seems like Republicans are right now facing a lot of outcry at town hall meetings. They're hearing from constituents who have coverage who don't want to lose it.

DAVIES: We'll talk about ideas congressional leaders are floating and how they could affect the care we get. Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.