25 Years Later

When History, Destiny Converged

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

The shots came from the crowd outside the Washington Hilton that drizzly afternoon -- six shots that would show the nation once again how vulnerable to attack its presidents are.

President Ronald Reagan, then 70, a Washington newcomer in office two months, had paused to wave to the knot of people. At the sound of the shots, Secret Service agents shoved him into the presidential limousine and sped away, not realizing he had been hit. Three men lay wounded, one with blood dripping from his head, and the young assailant, whose mission would soon be revealed, was quickly restrained.

Twenty-five years ago today, the nation watched in shock as television brought home again and again the reality of the shooting. It was a moment chilling in its possibilities, reminding Americans another time in two decades that a national tragedy is only an assassin's bullet away. People saw once again that they live in an epicenter of power, where monumental shifts can occur in an instant.

For some, it was a day that forced them to walk alongside history, to participate in the urgent events that unfolded. Some of them were with the president at his most unguarded moments. They saw his attempts to be strong and his sense of humor. They overheard the "Honey, I forgot to duck" quip he delivered when his wife, Nancy, arrived at the hospital. They revisit their memories of this historic episode from time to time. One of them, who suffered a severe head injury, has had to live with the imprint of that day.

Some say they will always be haunted by what could have happened.

"There's a couple of times where truth and training converge, where history and destiny converge," said Jerry Parr, a Secret Service agent working with Reagan that day. "I thought about that for a long time. It's that moment -- either you do it or you don't, either you save him or you don't."

Shots Are Fired

When Jerry Parr was a kid, his father took him to see the movie "Code of the Secret Service" (1939). One of the lead characters, agent Brass Bancroft -- played by Ronald Reagan -- made such an impression on the young boy that he later decided to join the Secret Service. More than 40 years later, Parr would marvel that he had helped save this same man, then president of the United States.

By the time Reagan took office in 1981, Parr was special agent in charge of the presidential protection division, with about 120 agents under his supervision. That day, he was among agents helping guide Reagan to the presidential limousine parked outside the Hilton's side entrance on T Street NW. It was 2:25 p.m., and Reagan had just given a speech to union representatives inside. Suddenly, a young man stepped out from the crowd. Parr switched to "muscle memory," he said -- don't think, just respond -- when he heard the shots.

"It was like a rabbit running for a hole," he said. He and agent Ray Shattuck had one goal, to get Reagan safely inside the limousine.

The first shot hit presidential press secretary James S. Brady in the head. The second struck D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty. Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, who opened the limo door, shielding Reagan with his body, took the next shot.

Parr "grabbed the president by the shoulder and started getting him down," he said. "Shattuck was behind me, and we were both giving him a tremendous heave into the car."

Parr jumped in after the president. "Let's move," he shouted to the driver, and, according to plan, the limousine headed south on Connecticut Avenue, toward the White House. Parr helped the president sit up, then began to examine him, running his hands under Reagan's jacket and through his hair. He did not find a wound.

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