On a blazing summer day 50 years ago in Texas, a sniper wreaked unprecedented carnage on the campus of the University of Texas.
The gunman climbed the school’s iconic Main Building, known as the Tower, packing rifles, a sawed-off shotgun and other firearms.
He then unleashed a methodical, 96-minute killing spree on the people below, killing 15 people and injuring more than 30 others before Austin police shot him dead atop the tower.
The violence that day would be the first of its kind; before Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or Columbine.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the shooting — considered the first mass school shooting in American history.
“People sent me newspaper articles from London, from Sweden. It hit the networks and it was all over the world,” Ramiro “Ray” Martinez, one of the officers who gunned down the shooter, told Business Insider.
Martinez, then 29 years old, is the last surviving person among the group that brought the shooter down. He remembers details from that terrifying day to an astonishing degree.
“I was off duty, at home, and I was not supposed to report to duty until 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” Martinez told us.
“I was watching the news at noon on television. The anchor was handed a note, and he read it, and he said there is a man on top of the University of Texas tower shooting, and there are unconfirmed reports that some have been injured.”
Martinez called the police department and was instructed to help direct traffic around the university. When he arrived, his task had already been covered.
Instead, he went into the tower to help the assault squad he assumed was already inside.
As he approached the tower from the university’s south lawn, he got his first look at the carnage unfolding around him.
“I could see a dead man. I could see a woman laying on her back, a pregnant woman, in the hot sun,” Martinez said. “I could see other bodies laying there, I don’t know if they were dead or wounded. That’s when I decided to make a run for the tower.”
The shooter, a 25-year-old ex-Marine named Charles Whitman, was an expert marksman, hitting some victims from 500 yards away. Students stranded on the lawn sought refuge behind whatever they could find — trees, parked cars, even a flagpole.
Zig-zagging his way across the lawn to avoid becoming the next target, Martinez made it to the tower and took the elevator up to the 26th floor, two floors below the observation deck where Whitman was perched.
“As I was going up, I could hear the shooting from inside the elevator. So I said, ‘This is very serious. I may be killed,'” Martinez recalled.
“As a practicing Catholic I was taught to say an act of contrition, atone for your sins in case you don’t make it. So I said my prayer, and by that time, I got to the 26th floor and I had my gun out.”
When the elevator doors opened, Martinez immediately found himself on the business end of a rifle and a shotgun. Fortunately for him, they were held by Officer Jerry Day and someone who appeared to be a plainclothes officer, named Allen Crum.
Martinez soon realised they were the only policemen in the building.
The team searched the floor and found a group of survivors who had barricaded themselves in an office room.
“One gentleman had a white pair of women’s shoes. They were bloody. And he says, “This SOB killed my whole family up there,” Martinez said.
Martinez and the plainclothes officer moved to the stairs’ first landing and found the victims the man told them about. A teenage boy, dead, with his tongue protruding out — the man’s son. A dead woman nearby — his sister-in-law. A severely wounded woman, his wife, whom they had to turn over to keep her from choking on her own blood. And the man’s other teenage son, also wounded, who confirmed the shooter was one floor above.
The two policemen moved upstairs and agreed that they would do whatever it took to stop the gunman.
“He says, ‘Are we playing for keeps?’ I said, ‘Damn right we are.’ And he said, ‘You better deputize me then,'” Martinez recalled during our conversation.
“And that’s when I found out he was a civilian. And I said, ‘Well, consider yourself deputized.”
On the observation deck, the pair split up to opposite corners to find the gunman. Bullets whizzed over their heads and exploded into the brick behind them — students with hunting rifles were trying to pick off the shooter from the ground.
Crum and Martinez were soon joined by Day and another officer, Houston McCoy. Martinez and McCoy crept around the corner of the observation deck together and caught a glimpse of the shooter. From his corner, Crum inadvertently fired his rifle into the wall, distracting the shooter, and providing Martinez the chance to get off a shot.
With McCoy covering him, Martinez fired a round at the shooter, initiating a gunfight.
Martinez fired until his handgun was empty, shouting for McCoy to join him. McCoy fired his shotgun twice at the shooter, hitting him twice in the head. Martinez grabbed McCoy’s weapon and fired one final time, hitting the shooter in the shoulder as he slumped to the ground.
Official reports credit McCoy for killing the shooter, though Martinez maintains to this day that he fired the fatal shot.
With the sniper dead, the gravity of the moment began to sink in for Martinez.
“My knees started buckling because my adrenaline stopped pumping, and I became a human again,” he said.
In the hours and days that followed, details about the shooter began to emerge.
Whitman was an engineering student at the university. He had a brain tumour, and he had complained to multiple doctors about violent impulses and depression over the previous year. The night before the shooting, he stabbed his wife and mother to death.
At the time, the tower shooting was by far the deadliest school shooting in US history, and it remained so until the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which 32 people were killed.
The tower shooting was unlike anything the nation had ever seen. For the survivors, life had changed forever.
“It was surreal. We didn’t have mass killings in those days,” Herb Ritchie, one of the people barricaded in the office room, told The Houston Chronicle in 2006.
“After that, you never felt the same. You were never safe anywhere or with anybody.”
NOW WATCH: The number of times Obama has had to respond to mass shootings during his presidency is staggering
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.