Austin newsman describes covering the 1966 UT Tower shooting—and how the story has evolved

In 1966, the University of Texas at Austin was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 18 people.

In 1966, the University of Texas at Austin was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 18 people.

Neal Spelce, who was working as a TV reporter, stood within range of Charles Whitman on Aug. 1, 1966, as he fired on pedestrians below from the top of the tower on The University of Texas campus.

Spelce spoke Tuesday on a South by Southwest Conferences & Festivals panel titled "Tower Recall: How UT Shooting Changed the Media." The UT Tower massacre was the first mass shooting on an American college campus. People on the scene could not believe it was happening, Spelce said.

“It was happening in a totally unprecedented way and a totally shocking way. People would walk out on The Drag and stand there and look up at the tower while gunshots were going off, sirens were screaming, people were yelling, ‘Get out of the way! Watch out! He’s shooting! He’s killing people!’” Spelce said. “They’d just stand there transfixed because they couldn’t comprehend what was happening. And, bam, they got shot.”

The panel addressed how media coverage of mass shootings has changed since 1966. Today, the names of victims are usually withheld until their family is contacted, which Spelce called “a good, good policy.” However, during the evening TV broadcast on the day of the shootings, the station decided to read the names of victims as they were carried into Brackenridge Hospital.

“Remember, Austin was a small town at that point—a couple of hundred thousand people,” Spelce said. “Everyone, it seemed like at least, was tied in some way, to this campus. They all were wondering, ‘Well, what about my friend? What about my wife? What about my kids?’”

Spelce became emotional as he described the station’s former news director, who had come back to help cover the event, found out live on the air that his own grandson was been shot and killed.

As the years have gone on, the stories of both the victims and survivors of the shooting have expanded, Spelce said. Since the 50th anniversary of the shooting in 2016, a renewed interest in the case has led to more outlets publishing pieces telling the stories of survivors. Spelce’s daughter Cile Spelce, a journalist in her own right, said in 2016 she heard new facts about the shooting as more and more survivors opened up about their experiences.

“I think it’s very interesting that this event took so much time for people in this small town to process and assimilate and manage the feelings that went around it,” she said. “It’s almost taken 50 years.”