It was August 1, 1966.
In the early morning hours just after midnight, 25-year-old Charles Whitman drove to his mother's apartment at 1212 Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas and stabbed the 43-year-old woman to death.
By 3am, Whitman had also done the same to his 23-year-old wife, Kathy.
At 11:48am, Whitman had already used false identification to gain access to the University of Texas at Austin's Main Building and had taken the elevator to the building's 27th floor, the highest floor accessible by elevator and one floor below the building's famed clock tower.
The first shots rung out. Claire Wilson, an 18-year-old student who was 8-months pregnant, was walking alongside her fiance, Thomas Eckman. Wilson was shot first, her baby believed to have been instantly killed by the shot to the abdomen while she lay crumpled on the ground seriously wounded. When he kneeled over to assist her saying "What's wrong?", Eckman was fatally shot in the neck.
Edna Townsley, the tower's 51-year-old receptionist, was bludgeoned and shot to death by Whitman inside the tower as he was accessing the clock tower area, while 56-year-old Marguerite Lamport and 16-year-old Mark Gabour were shot to death as their families arrived at the observation deck merely to check out the sights on a beautiful Texas day.
Before the shooting was done just over 90 minutes later, the dead would also include:
- Dr. Robert Boyer, age 33, a physics professors
- Thomas Ashton, age 22, a Peace Corps trainee
- Thomas Karr, age 24, a university senior
- Billy Speed, age 23, a police officer
- Harry Walchuck, age 38, a doctoral student
- Paul Sonntag, age 18, who was shot while hiding behind construction barriers
- Claudia Rutt, age 18, fiancee of Sontag
- Roy Schmidt, age 29, an electrician
- Karen Griffith, age 17, who had been severely wounded in the shooting and died seven days later
- David Gunby, age 58, who died of wounds obtained in the shooting in 2001; the coroner ruled his death a homicide
Around 1:24pm, three officers plus a civilian made their way to the Main Building's 26th floor by elevator and would encounter those who had been killed and injured by Whitman as he accessed the clock tower area to begin his shooting spree. As they prepared to surround the shooter, civilian Allen Crum's rifle accidentally discharged. While this mistake could have been catastrophic, it distracted Whitman enough that the quick thinking officers on the other side of him were able to charge him and end the siege in a barrage of bullets only moments later. Crum and officers Ramiro Martinez, Houston McCoy and Jerry Day were deemed heroes.
In Keith Maitland's award-winning documentary Tower, however, it becomes abundantly clear that there were many heroes who rose to the occasion that day. There were many people, men and women, who ran toward the victims and toward the tragedy when their community needed them most. In fact, young Claire Wilson likely survived the tragedy precisely because one young woman, brought to life vividly in the film, laid still on the concrete next to her despite not having been shot herself and stayed by her side until a small group of young men would eventually arrive and risk their own lives to carry Claire and assist the young woman to safety.
Indeed, heroes refuse to leave.
I don't know that the University of Texas at Austin school shooting was the "first" mass school shooting in the United States, as is cited in the film's marketing. It was, however, likely the first one to gain wide public attention for what at the time was considered unthinkable and unusual and completely and utterly unacceptable.
Now? It's seemingly commonplace.
On the 50th anniversary of the mass shooting, Keith Maitland has crafted a deeply moving and intellectually satisfying film that almost seems like it shouldn't work but it works immeasurably. Weaving together archival footage and photographs, interviews with survivors and/or their relatives, and perfectly utilizing rotoscopic animation created by Animation Director Matthew Staggs and Minnow Mountain, Maitland has crafted one of the year's most uniquely visioned and impactful documentaries, a film with its pulse on the current debate over guns yet also a film that refuses, absolutely refuses, to politicize the innocent lives that were forever impacted over the course of about 90 minutes on August 1, 1966.
You have to consider that in August 1966, S.W.A.T. teams didn't exist. We didn't have cell phones...heck, we barely had effective radios. Even the guns used by Austin police paled in comparison to those that had been carried up to the tower by Whitman. While we plan for just such an occurrence now in society, in 1966 a man such as Charles Whitman was still considered an aberration.
Possessing one of the finest and most beatifully moving final sequences in cinema this year, Tower doesn't play out in real time yet because it also runs right about 90 minutes it feels like everything is playing out in real time. By the end of the film's running time, one forgets the transitions between archival footage and animation. By the end of the film's running time, one forgets that the film actually has animation despite also, somehow, fully realizing that the animation has done exactly what animation should do - accentuated the story and brought it even more vividly to life. The words utilized are extraordinary and the scenes that unfold are crafted with factual dialogue and from interviews that will leave you in tears unless your soul has become numbed out by school shootings that now seem like an everyday happening.
While one could argue that Maitland could have taken the film deeper or turned the film into a stronger social justice statement, the truth is that Maitland's tone is impeccable throughout the film as he focuses his attention on the victims, survivors, and heroes and their actions on August 1, 1966.
You may notice something. I certainly did. Whitman's name, despite being crucial to everything that unfolded, is never empowered and, in fact, never even uttered throughout the film.
Indeed, Tower is about the act of the shooting and those who did something and, heartbreakingly, occasionally those who did nothing and simply walked by the victims.
Picked up by indie distributor Kino Lorber, Tower is the kind of small documentary that seldom gets the attention it deserves and, indeed, it's a film that deserves wide attention. Beautifully rendered and emotionally heartbreaking, Tower is truly one of 2016's "must see" documentaries.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic