'You Realize That Life Is a Pretty Tenuous Thing'
Forty Years Before the Shootings at Virginia Tech, a Student at the University of Texas Took Deadly Aim. Some Survivors Reflect on the Reverberations of That Day.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Interviews by Teresa Wiltz ยท Washington Post Staff Writer

Seung Hui Cho's rampage at Virginia Tech was not the first time a university student opened fire on his schoolmates. On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, an architectural engineering student and former Marine, climbed the University of Texas Tower and for 96 minutes, with a marksman's precision, began picking off victims. (He'd killed his mother and his wife earlier that day.) Before a police officer gunned him down, Whitman killed 15 people and injured 27 more. (In 2001, another of his victims died from injures sustained that day.)

Here are excerpts of what some of the witnesses say today.

Shelton Williams, 63, and Janell Williams, 61, were a young married couple on campus. He was driving down UT's main drag when the shooting began and leapt out of the car and started directing traffic away from the gunfire. Janell wa s supposed to be waiting for her husband on a street corner within Whitman's sights. Instead, she was running late. Which may have saved her life.

Shelton: At 22, you think you're invulnerable. You get over that. From that day forward, I have always been aware of where the exits are. If I get on the Metro, I look around. I sit in restaurants where I can see the front door. I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, but you can't go through something like that and not feel it.

Janell: We moved to D.C. right after that. We were walking down the street, close to Dupont Circle. A car backfired. No one else moved. But Shelly and I literally hit the ground. And I felt perfectly justified of that. It made me much more protective and watchful of our kids. We didn't let them play with toy guns.

Shelton, on the Virginia Tech shootings: I'm a mess. I'm just agitated. I don't want these things to happen. I think of that professor [who blocked the door so his students could escape]. If I were that professor, I would have done that. [He begins to cry.]

Janell: I'm more stoic than he is; he's more emotional. Every mass killing, of course, I think about it. How could you not? I've just been so sad that it's not a stand-alone event.

Dave Mattson

Mattson, 64, a retired journalism teacher in Minnesota, was at the university for Peace Corps training. He was 24 and planning to go to Iran to teach English.

I'm reminded of [the sniper shootings] every day because of the physical disability that I have. If I sit down at my computer, I'm reminded that I don't type as well as I used to.

We'd had a water fight at the dorm where we were staying. I got some water under the crystal in my watch. We were walking near the jewelry store. I raised up my arm to show my friend the water in my watch. At that point my arm slammed down with considerable force. I looked at my hand and wrist; they were bleeding profusely. He aimed at my head, I guess, and got my hand, which was a few inches adjacent. [The bullet] went through my hand and right wrist.

I didn't feel pain at that point. I was more aware of a lot of blood. He must have hit an artery. In the middle of the back of my hand, the blood was squirting like a fountain. That made me weak in the knees, too.

We ducked into that jewelry store. There were shells coming in through the window and embedding into the carpet on the floor. We made our way to the back of the store, barricaded ourselves in a small washroom for what seemed like an eternity. By that time, I was slowly going into shock.

We heard a little pounding in the jewelry store. It was a police officer. He led us out the alley to a waiting ambulance.

One of my friends from the Peace Corps training group was killed. He was on the other side of the campus. I was able to continue with my goals and go to Iran. I felt very fortunate; my injuries weren't as serious as others. I survived and many didn't.

I consider myself a reasonably religious person. When I found out a little more about Whitman, I never felt that I had to carry a lot of hatred or blame toward him. I knew that in some ways he was mentally ill. I felt more sorrow for people whose lives were affected by this than feeling negative towards him. That wouldn't do any good. You realize that life is a pretty tenuous thing. There are so many unforeseen things that can happen that you have absolutely no control over. Maybe that's the one thing to learn.

I've had a productive and a good life ever since.

Clif Drummond

Drummond, 63, was a 23-year-old senior and student government president at the University of Texas. When the shooting began, Drummond and his friend, Bob Higley, decided that they would try to rescue the wounded -- even as Whitman continued shooting.

I can remember what the temperature was, the fact that it was so incredibly hot. That it was so still. I can still smell the nitrate from the expended rounds.

That day, looking across the drag, on the other side of the street, we could see a man crumpled on the sidewalk, leaning against a parking meter. I said: "Bob, looks like that guy is hurt. We'll need to cross the street. Are you ready to do that?" He said yes. I said, "Don't forget to zigzag."

Whitman began shooting at us. I remember the pavement exploding at my feet as we began running.

When we got to the other side of the street, it was clear [the man] wasn't wounded. He was dead. He'd been shot in the mouth -- 250-meter shot.

Charles Whitman was an extraordinarily good shot.

Bob and I continued to work up and down the alley -- pick up four to five [injured] people, help get them loaded into ambulances and private vehicles. These were not grand calculations. This was: We need to do this. People need our help. Boom, we go do it.

I will testify that 96 minutes is a very long time in that context.

That day, though, helped me tremendously in terms of my faith and my walk with God, or my feeble attempts at walking with God. It also made me realize that there is evil in this world. Forty years on, I can't make sense of it.

The people at Virginia Tech are going to feel this for many years, if not decades. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. But that's the reality of this.

Tim Holt

Holt, 66, was back from Marine Corps training to resume his education. He hid out in a building next to the Tower and saw bodies sprawled on the grass.

It's a helpless feeling that you had. You know people that are out there, but there's no way you can help them.

It's not the kind of thing that I have nightmares about. But it's something you don't like to think about. It's one of those circumstances in life that you hope doesn't repeat itself. But this is a daily occurrence in Iraq. You have suicide bombers taking out 50, 60 people. And no one's interviewing people who experienced that kind of event.

Cheryl Botts Dickerson

Dickerson, 59, was visiting the campus with a date. She was 18 and about to enter college at a nearby school.

The [observation deck of the] Tower was our first stop of our tour. When we came into the reception room, Whitman had already beaten up the receptionist, dragged her body across the floor, and hidden her body behind the couch. I'm sure he thought he was by himself.

He turned around and faced us. He had a rifle in each hand.

I smiled and said, "Hello," if you can believe that. He said "Hi" to me as well. We thought he was going to shoot pigeons.

People don't understand. You didn't say, " Excuse me, what are you going to do with those rifles?" It's a good thing we didn't ask any questions. It might have made all the difference. While we were going down one set of elevators, the Gabour family [part of another tour group] was going up the other set of elevators. He started firing and killed several members of that family.

It was not my time.

After that, I spent a lot of time in prayer with my church family. The incident totally changed my life. It made me come out of my shell. I'd go out with preacher boys and give my testimony. It gave me more confidence, made me more assertive. I hated the reason for it. But I was glad for the change in me.

One of the things that a survivor goes through is relief that you're still alive and you didn't get killed. And guilt that you're still alive and didn't get killed.

The [Virginia Tech] shootings bring it back. You compare. It's kind of like the torch has been passed. Now UT is not the worst one.

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