Monday, August 1, 1966 dawned clear and hot. That line opens “UT Tower Shooting, 50 Years Later” – an extended cut of the award-winning story “96 Minutes of Horror, 50 Years of Healing” by Spectrum News Austin that tells the tragic tale of the University of Texas Tower Shooting of 1966.
This installment of our Reporter’s Notebook series explains the story behind the story – how the painstaking work by our reporters, producers, and editors brought the harrowing, 50-year-old tragedy back to life. The station’s reporting on the Tower Shooting won an Edward R. Murrow regional award, and was honored by the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters.
The staff combed archives, old documents and sifted through hours worth of decades-old, black-and-white film. They also tracked down and interviewed four survivors, whose words – in extraordinary, heartbreaking detail – will bring you back in time, to the clock tower on that terrible day. Here is the story behind the story.
The Heart of the Story
The Spectrum News Austin team had long known about the former Marine sniper who climbed atop the Texas campus clock tower in 1966 with a shotgun and semi-automatic rifle. He killed 15 people, and wounded 31. To tell the story right, they needed to find survivors.
Senior producer Rachel Smith, who pitched and produced the story, anchor Ed Greenberger, who wrote the piece, and photographer/editor Andy Brooksbank, set out to locate the voices for their story. They found Cheryl Dickerson, whose account included a brush with the assailant atop the clock tower. They found Artly Snuff, who was 17 at the time. He bravely ran onto the mall to save Claire Wilson, one of the shooting victims, who, the report explains, “lay on the searing concrete, eight months pregnant, with a bullet in her hip.” They found Claire too, now named Claire Wilson James. She survived, but her unborn baby did not. They also found Ramiro Martinez, a retired police officer who eventually killed the shooter.
Brooksbank and Smith tracked down the survivors. Greenberger established contact, and conducted the interviews.
“We had Artly and once we got Claire, we knew we had the emotional heart of the story,” said Greenberger. “This was truly the most in-depth, complex, deep-dive of a story I’ve ever done. Everything was far more intricate than anything I had ever done.”
The Newsgathering Process
Smith, as the senior producer, was tasked with locating the footage. That meant countless visits to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, time spent on her laptop at home watching grainy moving images, and poring over old newspaper and radio clips to piece the day together.
“I did nearly all of this on my off-time. It was months of going through paperwork, archives and old public records,” she said. “I’m glad I did it. It was an incredible story.”
She edited the narrative to ensure the facts were accurate, aligned with the footage, and made sure the script had the right tone. There were ethical considerations too. The news team worked to ensure the piece was as sensitive as possible, and focused on letting the survivors and heroes tell the story.
“We were talking about a 50-year-old landmark story so it was different than seeing it live and unfolding. The footage is grainy, so there’s a bit of distance from it,” said Smith.
Woven around the narrative, are powerful interviews with four survivors. Artly’s words make clear that he still grieves that day. His voice catches. His eyes well with tears.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever done an interview like that in my life. We walked out of that interview knowing we had something really special,” said Greenberger. “That interview was powerful.”
Both Greenberger and Smith say the process of reporting, writing, and editing the story was among the most rewarding projects they have ever produced in their years in the news business.
Visit Spectrum News Austin to watch the entire special.