Forty years ago Tuesday, Charles Whitman unleashed terror from atop the University of Texas bell tower. But for those who survived, no amount of time can ever erase the nightmare.
If you're over 50, you probably remember the time and place when you first heard about the shooting on the University of Texas campus. For Hearne resident Karen Elliott, remembering is easy because she was there.
"Well that was my first day on campus by myself," Elliott said. "I was at freshman orientation with my best friend."
Elliott was on her way to meet a girlfriend for lunch. But before that could happen, the clock struck 11:48 am and the world changed in the blink of an eye.
"I was walking up headed toward the tower and I heard what sounded like pop fire crackers," Elliott said.
Those pops were the opening volleys of a massacre like the nation had never seen. UT student Charles Whitman was armed to the teeth when he barricaded himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower. From there he randomly began shooting anyone and everyone down below.
A terrified Elliott was one of those caught in the crosshairs, only to be saved by an angel on two wheels.
"There was a boy on a bicycle delivering newspapers and he came from behind the architecture building," she recalled. "And he came down the sidewalk. And when it hit him, he fell over on me. And it got him in the legs. So my belief is he was shooting at my chest because he wasn't shooting to wound, he was shooting to kill. I just think that boy got between me and that bullet."
Once Whitman turned his attention to the other side of the campus, Elliott managed to crawl to safety. But the nightmare was far from over.
"We sat behind this stone wall that faced Guadalupe," Elliott said. "Well at that point, we just sat with our backs to that wall watching people get slaughtered on the drag."
For 90 minutes, Whitman kept up the barrage of bullets. It finally ended when a couple of brave officers broke through the barricade and gunned down the sniper. When the smoke cleared, 15 were dead, and 31 wounded.
"When I finally walked out of that building on the way to consolvent, there was just a deathly quiet over that whole campus," Elliott said. "I didn't hear anything but the sprinklers at the church. That's all I heard."
Understandably, Elliott's parents wanted her to come home right away, but the determined 18-year old declined. Today, she says she has no regrets about staying, and no animosity toward Whitman.
"I never had hatred for Charlie Whitman, ever," she said. "I didn't hate him at the moment, I didn't hate him afterward and I don't hate him now.
"I think it made me much stronger. It really did."
In an interesting side note to this story. Whitman's academic advisor had suggested he move to another school. At the time of the shooting, the advisor was working on Whitman's transfer which would have sent him to Texas A&M.
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