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40 years later, KTBC retells the tale of UT’s tragic day

This story originally was published on July 27, 2006.

Before Columbine, before Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, there was the University of Texas Tower massacre.

On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman pointed a rifle from the observation deck of the Tower and began shooting in a homicidal rampage that went on for 96 minutes. All told, he killed 15 people (the film says 16, which includes an unborn child) and wounded another 31, and in the shocked aftermath, a handful of local reporters scrambled to make sense of it all.

Pegged to the 40th anniversary of this home-grown tragedy, KTBC has produced a half-hour documentary, "Sniper ’66, " that looks back with archival footage, some of which has never been seen; old photos from the Austin Police Department; and new interviews with surviving witnesses. It airs 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Whitney Milam, producer-director of commercials and specials for KTBC, spent more than a year putting together the documentary and has become a passionate student of the subject.

"Charles Whitman was the first person to take his guns and go to school, " Milam said recently. "He was our first domestic terrorist."

The Whitman shootings happened before the age of instant news and satellite trucks. Bulky film cameras captured images that were sent back to studios for editing and, finally, broadcast. In the new documentary, we see those grainy, jerky black-and-white scenes captured by KTBC. Bodies of the dead and injured are rushed by on stretchers, people on campus scatter in terror, grim-faced men toting rifles rush by, puffs of smoke rise from the Tower where Whitman is shooting.

The killings startled not only Austin and Texas, but the entire nation. Police later discovered Whitman had stabbed to death his wife and mother the previous night.

"The unseen footage we have is nothing earth-shattering, " Milam said. "It's culled from raw footage we brought back to the station that day ... bits of footage that didn't make it into the local or national packages back then."

Neal Spelce, a young reporter at KTBC in 1966, crept to the bloody scene and filmed reports that aired locally and nationally on network news. Also on the scene that day was a skinny young director, Gordon Smith, who was working on a children's show at PBS' KLRN (later KLRU), Smith, who later became a beloved weatherman at KXAN and KTBC, ventured out to cover the rampage, too.

In "Sniper ’66, " Spelce and Smith recall their experiences. Also interviewed are Ray Martinez, the police officer who (along with officer Houston McCoy) brought down Whitman; former KTBC reporters Gordon Wilkerson and Gary Pickle; former Brackenridge Hospital surgeons Robert Pape and Albert Lalonde; former Austin American-Statesman reporter Alvin Williams; former UT President Larry Faulkner; and Gary M. Lavergne, author of "A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders."

Lavergne's 1997 book was the spark that piqued the professional interest of Milam, who had never heard of Whitman until he arrived on the UT campus as a freshman in 1983. With "Sniper ’66, " Milam authors his own account through old images and new perspective.

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