Their lives merged (briefly) during the Texas-tower sniper ordeal


To the rest of the world, this Tuesday (Feb. 14) is Valentine's Day; to PBS, it's a day for truly compelling documentaries about tragedies. At 9 p.m. is a superb "American Experience" on the Ruby Ridge stand-off; at 10 is an even better "Independent Lens" on the Texas tower sniper. Here's the story I sent to papers, about three of the key people from that Texas day.

 

By Mike Hughes

In the searing
August heat of Austin, Texas, these strangers shared an ordeal. Then
their lives went in opposite directions.

The tragedy –
described in a compelling PBS film Tuesday – was a half-century
ago, when a sniper began shooting from the tower at the University of
Texas. The people included:

-- Claire Wilson
James, then a pregnant teen-ager who was one of the first people hit.
Lying on the concrete, she heard someone say she couldn't be saved.
“I thought, 'Maybe that's it for me.'”

-- John “Artly”
Fox, who carried her to safety. “It was the most horrifying moment
of my life,” he said.

-- Ray Martinez, who
raced past her, something he's often thought about. “I didn't stop
to help her,” he said, “because I had a bigger mission.” At the
top of the tower, he and another cop killed the sniper.

That ended an ordeal
that left 14 people dead – 15 counting James' unborn son, 17
counting the wife and mother the sniper had killed the night before –
and 31 wounded. And then ... well, life went on.

“It happened on a
Monday,” Fox said. “The University of Texas was closed on a
Tuesday, to clean away the blood and classes started on Wednesday
.... It was just, 'Don't think about it; go on with life.'”

So they did ... in
very different ways.

Martinez, 80, kept
his life on track. He became a narcotics agent, a Texas Ranger, a
private eye and a justice of the peace. “I learned to really
appreciate life,” he said, “because I had survived.”

Fox, 68, stayed in
Austin, becoming a key part of its fun spirit. One friend called him
“a happy clown,” a guy who linked with an offbeat rock band,
doing everything from mime to puppetry. “If I've made somebody
smile, to me it's a good day,” Fox said. “I've seen the dark
side; I'm drawn to the light.”

James, also 68, did
try to return to college life after her three-month hospital stay.
“We just went on,” she said, “and never a word.”

She bumped into
James Love, one of the two men who carried her to safety, but he
seemed disinterested. The other rescuer (Love's friend, Fox) remained
a mystery to her. “I actually had thought he was an angel for a
long time,” she said, “because I couldn't find him anywhere.”

Soon, she left
school and began a cross-country existence. “I like my life,”
James said. “I've been many places. I get to teach; I know God
now.”

That last part may
have surprised friends who knew her as a free-thinking, skinnydipping
teen.

Growing up in a
liberal Dallas family that fought for civil rights, she had worked
with Students for a Democratic Society and had spent the previous
summer in Mississippi, registering black voters.

After the shooting,
her life gained fresh focus with the Seventh Day Adventists. She
taught at their schools, before and after graduating as an education
major at 35. Her boyfriend had been killed by the sniper; she married
and divorced twice and adopted a 4-year-old Ethiopian refugee.

James was busy ...
and, in a way, lonely. She admits to feeling envious of people after
the Columbine shooting, “because I felt that those people had more
of a community and they could talk to each other.”

During that tower
ordeal, she did have one person to talk to. Rita Starpattern –
later, an artist, activist and administrator -- threw herself on the
ground and kept her talking, to keep her alive. Others, hiding behind
cover, didn't budge. “We've gotta help the ones there's still hope
for,” she heard someone say.

Recalling that
moment now, James said she accepted the notion that her life was
ending. “I believe in the resurrection of the just.”

Fox and others were
hiding behind cover. As the temperature neared 100 degrees, he says,
he “suffered a mild case of heat stroke .... That's when I thought,
'What's it like out there for her?'” He grabbed Love and dashed to
the rescue.

It was a daring
move, but workable. The sniper “was shooting out of all four sides
of the tower,” Fox said. “So we had a three-to-one chance.”

They carried James
to safety; when the sniper was killed, Fox simply walked away.
“There's an inexplicable guilt inside me,” he said, “for not
doing more. We were all broken in some ways.”

-- “Tower,”
10-11:30 p.m. Tuesday, PBS; under the “Independent Lens” banner

-- Previously, it
won awards at six festivals and from four critics' groups.
Nationally, the Critics Choice Awards named it “most innovative
documentary.”

-- Director Keith
Maitland combined brief news footage with a “rotoscope” technique
that transforms actors (saying words the real people did in
interviews) into animation; he deliberately made no specific mention
of the sniper, Charles Whitman.