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UT Tower Shooting Survivor Asks ‘Why Would You Want Guns On A University Campus?’

Briscoe Center for American History
The tower at UT-Austin seen through a window with a bullet hole.

On Monday, the University of Texas marks 50 years since sniper Charles Whitman gunned down 16 people before police killed him. Thirty-two others were hurt.

The first person shot from the tower was a freshman from Dallas named Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant. She survived, but her baby and her boyfriend didn’t. Now a retired teacher in Texarkana, Claire Wilson James is coming to Dallas to introduce a documentary about the tower shooting on Thursday.

Interview Highlights: Claire Wilson James….

…On why she was left on the ground 90 minutes before help came:

“There weren’t SWAT teams or anything like that. Nothing like this had ever happened before in the U.S. The policemen just carried service revolvers. One policeman thought there were a thousand Black Panthers in the building, which tells you something about the state of mind of officers. One policeman I know got people to get their guns and took them over to get ammunition and I think having all those shots being fired made it pretty dangerous for anyone to help us.”  

…On her thoughts as she was lying there:

“At first, I thought I stepped on an electrical wire because it felt like that was the jolt. When you lose that much blood, you think that you’re melting, so my next thought was there was some kind of anti-matter gun or something, that there was an invasion. I couldn’t see anything, I couldn’t hear the shots. Then I thought, ‘oh, maybe the war in Vietnam has come to the United States’ because at some point, there was a plane lying around.”

… On how she recovered mentally in the years after the shooting:

“I did try to go to a therapist on the university campus – and that was all very new then – but he just kind of made a pass at me…I did try one more time. I went to the student health clinic about a year later and that guy recommended a really inappropriate drug. I mean, he prescribed me a drug that just laid me flat…. I wouldn’t say that I was aware of trauma. Maybe it wasn’t identified, but I was really searching. In that time, I had some really amazing experiences that led me to believe in God. I was raised an atheist and I had some things that just couldn’t have happened by accident.”  

…On the new campus carry law taking effect Aug. 1, the day of the shooting anniversary:

“The university and the legislature says it has to be that day I guess because…they want to have it in place before school starts. Just by accident, I got to talking from a police officer from Rochester, New York. He said it just made no sense, he thought it was a really bad idea. And he’s a police officer. I thought that was so telling. I just think in general, why would you want guns on a university campus?”

Claire Wilson James is one of the voices in a Texas Standard radio documentary called “Out of the Blue.” She will introduce the documentary "Tower" next week at a screening in Dallas. Get tickets here

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.