Monday, August 1, 2016

Historic Journal Details Medical Response to UT Sniper Attack

Fifty years to the day after a deadly sniper attack at The University of Texas (UT) shattered the midday calm of summer on campus, an archived edition of the Texas Medical Association’s Texas Medicine magazine details the emergency medical response to the rampage.

Ambulance attendants aided by police officers prepare to place a wounded patient in a waiting ambulance, following the UT Tower shooting on Aug. 1, 1966. Most victims were hit in the first 20 minutes of firing. Photo from archived Texas Medicine magazine article.
“The afternoon and evening were a nightmare undreamed of that morning,” the August 1966 article reads. “But when the worst was over, hospital and other medical officials expressed satisfaction with the way the tragedy had been handled from the medical standpoint.” On the morning of Aug. 1, 1966, UT student Charles Joseph Whitman began a sniper attack from the tower high above the campus. As students ran for cover and first responders moved in, Austin physicians, its city hospital, and blood banks mobilized. Such a mass assault on humanity was unheard of at the time, and a quirk of fate likely helped the medical response run as efficiently as participants claimed it did.

According to the Texas Medicine article, “Efficient Care of Sniper Victims Shows Worth of Disaster Plans,” Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital emergency room received 39 of the 49 attack victims. A total of 16 victims were killed, including Whitman’s mother and wife.

As the city hospital suddenly became overwhelmed with shooting victims, Brackenridge officials initiated its emergency response plan — created only five months earlier and practiced only once. Then-Brackenridge Hospital Administrator Ben Tobias told Texas Medicine, “Having a plan and rehearsing it helped us in being able to carry through with the job we had to do.”

Crowds of students watch as ambulance attendants and police officers wheel a wounded patient near the Tower on a stretcher. This man was one of the less seriously injured people wounded by Charles J. Whitman in the hour-and-a-half tragedy. Photo from archived Texas Medicine magazine article. 
As shooting victims arrived at the hospital, the article reports, Brackenridge administrators set up a control center near the emergency room and opened a 21-bed wing of the hospital that had been closed earlier in the year because of a nursing shortage. Word of the shooting was announced over television and radio, prompting “more than 50” off-duty physicians and nurses to rush to Brackenridge to help. “Other patients in the emergency area volunteered to leave in order to make room for the incoming patients,” according to the article. Doctors interviewed after the attack said the “disaster plan worked very well” and the “triage method of selecting patients had an especially effective part in facilitating necessary patient care.”

The three-page journal article chronicles every aspect of the response from communications to surgical schedule, and from traffic control to laundering hospital linens to contributions by local news media.

Officials quoted credited good media relations planning as a key component of the emergency response. After medical officials made calls to local media, 500 people showed up to donate blood despite the danger of traveling near the campus and the sniper’s line of fire. Travis County Medical Society’s blood bank kicked into action, and its executive director, John Kemp said, “We found out how vital the full support of the press is. … Our requests for blood got on the air immediately.” And unusual in today’s patient privacy era, the magazine credited the media with helping to identify correct names of some shooting victims.

The August 1966 Texas Medicine and its historic account of the UT Tower shootings has been digitized and posted on the Portal to Texas History, an archive housed at the University of North Texas. Visit to read the full article.

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