Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gunman at the PCL


You may have heard that there was an armed shooter today at the Perry-CastaƱeda Library at the University of Texas.  This happens to be the building where I, my office mates, and many of my colleagues and friends work.

The PCL (as its called, or "Pickle" as its called less often) is also a place open not just to students and the UT Community, but to the public at large.  Being open and public, I should say, is exactly what libraries do.  They're a public service, and the people who work in your local library believe in the right to openness of knowledge and availability of all their resources with a true conviction I find admirable.

I wasn't supposed to be at work today, at least not at the PCL.  Today I was slated to be back in Waco, but as I was getting in my car I received the first UT Emergency text, a system which was set up for exactly this sort of situation.  Sadly, university staff are all too aware of the potential for campus shooters.

Shortly after the UT emergency text, my Blackberry began chirping with requests for data from friends, family and colleagues.  Unfortunately, I was driving, which made texting impossible (and illegal), but a former co-worker actually called me and agreed to help me out by calling my office mates.

We found one another fairly quickly, and I believe by 9:00 everyone was accounted for.  I was already headed north, so I routed myself to my office mate's house and parked on her sofa for a few hours watching the news and figuring out what to do next.

Let me be frank:  we got very lucky today. 

The UT campus is squarely in the middle of Austin, a very safe city (a ridiculously safe city, really).  Crimes usually involve stolen bicycles or some B&E on west campus.  Masked gunmen with AK-47's don't usually fit into that picture, and especially not at the PCL.  But we do receive emergency texts about "suspicious characters", etc... with such frequency that I admit that I didn't take the initial warning very seriously.  But the all caps "UT CAMPUS IS ON LOCKDOWN" text left no ambiguity.  And those minutes between receiving the second text and knowing exactly where my office mate was were a bit nerve-racking.

As of this moment, and I think nothing will change, there is no second shooter, and the single gunman seems to have caused a lot of havoc and killed himself, but nobody else seems to have been shot.  As of this moment, the campus has been given the all-clear, but everyone has been asked to evacuate. 

I didn't go to Waco.  For what seemed like a very long while, I didn't know the status of my officemates or the folks I talk to on the stairwell or in the foyer of the library every day.  While the building has three or four different ways the folks in my office could exit if a fire were to break out, I am well aware that this is a different and uncontrollable situation.  Standing up to do a presentation this morning was just not going to go well.

It appears that the UT Community handled the situation well, and the APD, Sheriff's Department and UT Police appear to have handled the entire incident amazingly smoothly.

But you still think about everything that could have happened today.  Every time I walk out the door of my office, I look up at the top of the UT Tower, and while the ghost of Charles Whitman still haunts campus, the bells chiming in the carillon or the tower splashed in orange light after a football or volleyball win is what pops to mind when I think of the Tower.  I don't think too much about the 14 dead and 30-odd wounded from that hot summer of 1966.  Except when I do.  And, for me, that's pre-history.

The idea of walking into my building tomorrow knowing that, in the end, it was just a miserable end for someone, and that at least he took nobody with him...  that's something, I suppose.  My building won't be the one to bear the brunt of another tragedy like the one on the South Mall that people still speak about in code when they're on campus.

Libraries have long lives.  They need for their doors to always be open to the public.  One gunman can't and won't change that, and the first people to tell you that will be the librarians who might have been in the path of fire.  We'll do what public works always do:  we'll keep the doors open.

Why the gunman picked the library, I have no idea.  Its hard to imagine he had any connection to the library more than any other building.  At 8:00 AM, the populace is a collection of random students, student workers, librarians and other staff spread across the six sprawling floors of the library.  My guess is that more information is revealed, the building will have been picked for no real particular reason other than its accessibility and, maybe even that its at the bottom of the street he was reportedly seen walking down, gun in hand.

Anyway, I am now home.  Tomorrow I'll walk back in the doors of PCL, and head down to the basement to my office.  The gunman picked the top floor to turn the weapon on himself, and I'll be glad that I'm not walking past taped-off areas to get to my desk.  But mostly I'll be glad to walk into my building and know all the faces will still be there.

God damn, but did we get lucky.

Austin American-Statesman
Daily Texan Online


Steven said...

When I saw the initial tweets I was thinking about how your office is situated and was "sure" - in the way that we're always "sure" that disaster "can't" befall those we care about you were OK. Glad to see it in fact, too.

J.S. said...

Glad no one (other than the gunman) was hurt. Now might be a good time to come up with some kind of escape/lock or barricade yourself in a room plan in case something like this ever happens again.

The League said...

We actually established a protocol about a year and a half ago, but its probably time to review. Post Virginia Tech, universities really encouraged staff to get their act together.

Simon MacDonald said...

Wow, that is pretty amazing. I'm glad that you are okay and that the gunman did not hurt anyone other than himself.