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August 18, 2013

Capturing few seconds of history

GREENVILLE — Fifty years ago, Tina Towner was a teenager in Dallas, who missed school one November morning to join her parents downtown and watch the motorcade carrying President John F. Kennedy.

Towner stood just a few feet away from the presidential limousine and was making a home movie as it drove past.

But the few seconds of film that day stopped just short of capturing one of the most tragic and controversial events in American history.

“I heard the first gunshot right after I quit taking the film,” Towner said, as she appeared last week before the Greenville Kiwanis Club.

Towner, who now goes by Tina Towner Pender, has written a book about her experience, “My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination”, which was released in November of last year.

Towner was 13 on Nov. 22, 1963.

“My dad and mother took me downtown to see the motorcade,” Towner recalled. The three arrived an hour early and stood in the street, just off the curb at the corner of Houston and Elm Streets. “We were right across the street from the Texas School Book Depository.”

She said the motorcade passed surprisingly close to them.

“I remember Jackie Kennedy seemed to be looking right at the camera,” Towner said.

The footage, about 24 seconds in all, was played repeatedly for the Kiwanis Club, who met for their weekly lunch meeting Tuesday inside the Buffet Palace restaurant. The film showed the Kennedys, with the President waving to the crowd and the First Lady smiling. Towner’s father, James M. Towner, stood next to her, taking still photos.

She said she heard the first shots “about two seconds” after she stopped filming.

“Some stranger pulled me down to the ground,” Towner said. At first she thought it was fireworks. “My dad said, ‘Somebody just shot the president.’”

Towner insists she heard three shots that day and described the chaotic scene which followed.

“People were running around, sirens were going off,” Towner said.

The family walked to their car, parked a few blocks away at Union Station and drove from the scene, listening to the radio.

“But we didn’t know he had been killed,” she said. “We drove home. I ate lunch and then I got to school.”

Towner said it was probably not a good idea to have tried to get to school that day. By then the news had broken that Kennedy was dead. Classes were suspended as the nation tried to comprehend what had happened.

“I didn’t know what to say about anything,” she said. “It was very awkward.”

In the days following the assassination, Dallas newspapers and radio stations asked anyone who may have captured the events to submit their movies or photos. The Towners provided their photos and Tina’s as yet undeveloped footage, which was at the end of a reel of home movies. They didn’t get it back for a while.

“I think it was maybe at least a couple months, maybe six,” Towner said. “We had no idea what was on that film, really.”

Towner said they were surprised by what they found when they first watched it.

“There is a jump in the film,” she said of the split second hiccup in the footage, which is only noticeable when the film is repeated several times. “Right before the motorcade gets before the School Book Depository, there is a jump in the film.”

Towner said the family has no idea where the jump, which appears to be a splice in the footage, came from.

“Daddy didn’t do it, we know that,” she said.

And that was where the story takes a pause. It was years before the Towners started to be connected to the assassination legacy. The family was captured, standing on that corner, in photographs taken by another bystander.

“In 1967, Life Magazine found us,” Towner said, noting it was the first time the family had been contacted by anybody about the assassination. “In that issue, the editors wrote about us and how they found us.”

In 1968, Towner was 18 and submitted a story about her experience to Teen Magazine, which ran another feature on her.

The footage and photos, and the cameras which took them, are among the exhibits in the Sixth Floor Museum. But Towner said she never became a celebrity, because no one sought out her story.

“My whole life, since I was 13 years old, I haven’t had anything to say, until a few years ago, when I started writing my book,” Towner explained.

Since that time, Towner has appeared on programs about the assassination, produced by National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, as well as a 2011 documentary.

She’s met other witnesses during events at the Sixth Floor Museum and has conducted a few interviews about her film. Occasionally the discussions can be awkward.

“People who weren’t there, people who weren’t even born yet, will tell me, ‘That’s not what you saw,’” Towner said.

She doesn’t have a particular theory regarding the assassination. She recalled her father saw a man with a white coat standing in one of the windows of the Texas School Book Depository.

“I don’t think the Warren Report was completely accurate,” Towner offers, but also admits. “I don’t think we know what happened.”

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