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Posted at 10:13 PM ET, 03/11/2011

Revealing tapes of ride after 1981 Reagan shooting

The Secret Service on Friday released never-before-heard audio recordings made during one of the American presidency's most dramatic and dire episodes: the attempted assassination and wounding of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.

The recordings reveal poised Secret Service agents grappling with the aftermath of the shooting and the split-second decisions that ultimately saved Reagan's life.

The assassination attempt occurred at 2:27 p.m. as Reagan emerged from the Washington Hilton hotel, where he had just finished delivering a speech to a trade union.

From a distance of 15 feet, John W. Hinckley Jr. unleashed six shots that immediately wounded three men standing between the gunman and the president -- Press Secretary James Brady; D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty; and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy. Meanwhile, Agent Jerry Parr shoved Reagan into a limousine that quickly fled the scene.

At first, it seemed the president had escaped injury, according to the recordings. "Rawhide is okay," Parr said over his radio, referring to Reagan's Secret Service codename, according to the tapes. Parr then told an agent over the radio that they were heading back to "Crown," the codename for the White House.

However, Reagan's condition rapidly deteriorated: he was struggling to breathe, his face turned ashen and frothy blood appeared on his lips, Parr has said.

Parr quickly changed his mind and directed the limousine to the nearest trauma center, George Washington University Hospital. Over the radio, the limousine's driver, Agent Drew Unrue, alerted other agents to the change in course: "We want to go the emergency room of George Washington," he said calmly.

Within three minutes of the shooting, the presidential limousine reached the entrance to the hospital's emergency room. Reagan collapsed shortly after walking through the ER doors, but he was resuscitated.

At first, no one knew Reagan had been wounded -- some thought he had suffered a heart attack or a punctured lung. But it soon became clear he had been hit by one of Hinckley's bullets and he eventually underwent underwent major chest surgery to stop his bleeding and remove the bullet fragment, which was lodged just an inch from his heart.

Reagan would lose more than half of his blood but recover and return to the White House 12 days later. He went on to serve two-full terms as president.

The recordings, available here and posted on the Secret Service website, can be downloaded and heard in MP3 format. A transcript is also available in PDF format.

The Secret Service released the tapes in response to a public records request by me for my book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.

By  |  10:13 PM ET, 03/11/2011

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