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Campus Shooting Stirs Memories of Austin Massacre

With Monday's shooting, which left 33 people dead, Virginia Tech replaced the University of Texas as the site of the deadliest mass shooting on a U.S. college campus.

The Austin campus had held that sad distinction since Aug. 1, 1966, when 25-year-old Charles Whitman perched on the observation deck of the school's 307-foot tower for a 96-minute shooting spree.

Whitman fired his first shot just before lunchtime, about 11:55 a.m. — but the day's carnage had already begun. That morning, the one-time engineering student stabbed his wife to death at their home in Austin, then went to his mother's house and killed her.

Authorities said that Whitman left behind a note saying he killed his family to spare them from being embarrassed by what he planned to do.

At the end of the day, 16 people were dead and 31 were wounded. One of those wounded died in 2001 from what physicians said were complications from one of Whitman's bullets, bringing the death toll to 17.

The Austin American-Statesman commemorated the 40th anniversary of the tragedy with a series of letters of remembrance from readers and former students, stories and interviews.

Reading the accounts from the paper, the scene seems strangely similar to the chaos that some witnesses describe at Virginia Tech.

David Orton was a 23-year-old apprentice embalmer and funeral home director at the time of the Austin shootings. In the American-Statesman story, he recalled the confusion of that day in 1966.

"There was a really bad communication problem that day. Nobody had two-way radios, of course, nobody had cell phones, and there was a big problem trying to get everybody to where they were supposed to be to pick people up who had been shot," Orton said.

The newspaper also quoted a UT professor as saying everyone was in a state of shock.

James Ayres was teaching an English class when another professor came in to warn the group that someone was shooting from the tower.

"The first thing that occurs to you in something like this is it's just not believable," Ayres said.

The tower deck, which had always been open to the public, was closed in 1974 after several suicides.

Safety modifications were later added, including metal detectors, police guards and a fencelike structure to prevent anyone from jumping or falling. The deck is now open for tours.

Last year, the school observed the 40th anniversary of the shootings by flying flags on campus at half-staff. In January, university officials put a bronze plaque in a garden near the tower as a memorial "to those who died, to those who were wounded, and to the countless other victims who were immeasurably affected by the tragedy," according to an inscription on the plaque.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Deborah Tedford