Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 3, 2017.

Tower Legacy

50 years later, a new film looks at the country's first mass school shooting of the modern era


ON AUGUST 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old ex-Marine sharpshooter and architectural engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, unleashed what the Associated Press would describe as a “deadly storm of bullets” from the observation deck of the 307-foot-tall campus clock tower. Armed with a scoped rifle and other guns, Whitman killed 16 and injured dozens more from his perch before he was shot dead by police; armed students and other civilians who fired back at Whitman were also credited with stemming the carnage. The terror lasted an agonizing 96 minutes.

An acclaimed new documentary film, “Tower,” details the event and examines its immediate aftermath as well as its legacy as America’s first mass school shooting. “Tower” combines archival footage with animation to tell the stories of two students who were shot; two civilians who aided victims and police; a radio reporter who live-broadcasted the event; and the police officers who eventually shot and killed Whitman. “Tower” is being screened in selected locations across the country and will be aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series on February 14.

While mass shootings in schools and on campuses have become more common in the decades since, the University of Texas shooting shocked the country, a point driven home in “Tower.” “You get a sense of just how brutal and absolutely foreign that violence must once have seemed,” The New York Times said in its review of the movie. Variety wrote that “the film remarkably conveys not only the panic but also the sheer bewilderment that gripped those on the ground as the events were unfolding—a confusion that would be unthinkable now, given how sadly commonplace school shootings and other acts of mass murder have become.”

Directed by Keith Maitland, “Tower” is partly based on “96 Minutes,” a 2006 Texas Monthly article that included biographical information and quotes from dozens of people who survived the shooting. The accolades for “Tower” include the 2016 Critics’ Choice Award for Most Innovative Documentary and the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival Audience and Grand Jury awards. It has been short-listed for an Oscar.

The UT shooting catalyzed the creation of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams across the country. Later mass shootings, such as those at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 (13 killed) and Virginia Tech in 2007 (32 killed), prompted further changes to law enforcement response to active shooter incidents and launched a discussion among life safety experts on the role of codes and standards in addressing such events. An NFPA standard pertaining to active shooter incident response and preparedness is currently in development. Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until January 17. Visit the webpage for more information or to submit a comment.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Keith Maitland