Nation: The Madman in the Tower

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In the forenoon of a blazing August day, a blond, husky young man strolled into a hardware store in Austin, Texas, and asked for several boxes of rifle ammunition. As he calmly wrote a check in payment, the clerk inquired with friendly curiosity what all the ammunition was for. "To shoot some pigs," he replied. At the time, the answer seemed innocent enough, for wild pigs still abound not far from the capital. The horror of its intent only became obvious a few hours later, when the customer, Charles Joseph Whitman, 25, a student of architectural engineering at the University of Texas, seized his grisly fame as the perpetrator of the worst mass murder in recent U.S. history.

That morning, Charles Whitman entered two more stores to buy guns before ascending, with a veritable arsenal, to the observation deck of the limestone tower that soars 307 feet above the University of Texas campus. There, from Austin's tallest edifice, the visitor commands an extraordinary view of the 232-acre campus, with its green mall and red tile roofs, of the capital, ringed by lush farm lands, and, off to the west, of the mist-mantled hills whose purple hue prompted Storyteller O. Henry to christen Austin the "City of a Violet Crown." Whitman had visited the tower ten days before in the company of a brother, and had taken it all in. Today, though, he had no time for the view; he was too intent upon his deadly work.

Methodically, he began shooting everyone in sight. Ranging around the tower's walk at will, he sent his bullets burning and rasping through the flesh and bone of those on the campus below, then of those who walked or stood or rode as far as three blocks away. Somewhat like the travelers in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, who were drawn by an inexorable fate to their crucial place in time and space, his victims fell as they went about their various tasks and pleasures. By lingering perhaps a moment too long in a classroom or leaving a moment too soon for lunch, they had unwittingly placed themselves within Whitman's lethal reach. Before he was himself perforated by police bullets, Charles Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 31—a staggering total of 44 casualties. As a prelude to his senseless rampage, it was later discovered, he had also slain his wife and mother, bringing the total dead to 15.

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