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University of Texas to Reopen Clock Tower Closed After Suicides

After being closed 23 years ago because of a series of suicides, the observation deck of the 307-foot clock tower at the University of Texas will be reopened to the public, perhaps by next spring.

The university announced last week that it would reopen the tower, which is better known as the site of a shooting that left 14 people dead and 31 wounded 32 years ago.

The tower, which is part of the university's Main Building, is one of the tallest structures in Austin. Since the tower was completed in 1937, nine people have jumped to their deaths from the observation deck, which was closed in 1975.

On Aug. 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a student at the university, barricaded himself on the observation deck and began shooting passers-by with a rifle. At the time, the shooting was the nation's worst mass killing. It lasted 93 minutes, ending with Mr. Whitman's being killed by the police, but its after effects have spanned two generations.

Mr. Whitman, a former marine who killed his wife and his mother the night before the tower shootings, has been the subject of a movie, and many magazine and newspaper articles have been written about Mr. Whitman and the incident.

The University of Texas offers a course that examines the impact of Mr. Whitman's deeds, and bullet holes from police officers returning Mr. Whitman's fire can still be seen in the tower's facade.

"The tower is a symbol of a premier university and a very tragic event all at the same time," said Gary Lavergne, the author of a book about the shootings, "Sniper in the Tower" (UNT Press, 1997). "I can't think of another building or structure that has such a dual meaning to so many people."

Mr. Lavergne, who supports the decision to reopen the tower, said the 1966 shootings "introduced us to the modern concept of what is now called simultaneous mass murder."

The tower gives a commanding view of the campus and the city of Austin, and student groups have periodically sought to have the observation deck reopened.

Last Thursday, the university's board of regents agreed to spend about $500,000 to install iron barriers to deter suicides and to make the observation deck accessible to people with disabilities. Renovations are expected to be completed in time for spring graduation.

Under the plan, security personnel will accompany visitors to the observation deck. The university also plans to charge tower visitors an admission fee of $6 each.

In a statement, the university president, Larry Faulkner, called the tower the "most important symbol of academic aspiration and achievement in Texas." He added that it is time to "actively use this icon of higher education in positive ways."

Kara Burch, a senior, is eager to see Austin from the tower. "It's pretty exciting," Ms. Burch said. "There's been a lot of debate about the tower on campus. Before I graduate, I will be able to go up there."

Robert Heard, an Austin resident who was wounded by Mr. Whitman in 1966, agrees with the decision to reopen the tower. Mr. Heard, an Associated Press reporter when he was shot, said: "We've been long enough without the public being able to go up there. It's an idea whose time has come."

New York Times. November 17, 1998.
Article by: Unknown

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3 May 1999
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