It was a routine scene that Ronald Reagan as politician and president had played a thousand times.
Reagan had delivered his basic speech, appealing for support for his economic program and deploring the increase in violent crime which was "making neighborhood streets unsafe and families fearful in their homes."
He was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel through a VIP side door onto T Street. His armored limousine stood waiting for him in a driveway about 12 feet away. Secret Service agents were all around him. It was 2:25 p.m. on a typically rainy spring day, and Reagan, dressed in a blue suit with a white handkerchief in his pocket, seemed happy to be president.
Outside the hotel more than 100 persons had gathered. Reagan, as he always does, paused and waved to the crowd. The crowd cheered. Nearby, the president's press secretary, James S. Brady, walked toward a staff car, not looking at the president. To Reagan's left, slightly more than 10 feet away in a roped-off area, members of the crowd mixed with reporters and television cameramen who were photographing the president departure.
Michael Putzel of Associated Press, ready with the inevitable question, called out, "Mr. President."
Abruptly, the scene changed. Shots rang out, six of them in quick succession, with a slight pause between the second shot and the third. The shots appeared to come from the roped-off press area to the left of and below the president. To those close to the rope restraining the press, the shots sounded like firecrackers. A woman screamed. A Secret Service agent yelled, "Get back, get back." Other agents jumped on a blond man who was facing the president and holding a handgun. They pinned him against the concrete wall of the hotel.
Reagan stood transfixed as the shots rang out. One eyewitness said he winced. Putzel said, "The smile just sort of washed off his face."
Admist the noise of the crowd, those who saw the president at first thought he had emerged unscathed. They saw a Secret Service agent shoved into the right rear seat of his armored limouisine. They saw Reagan hunched in the seat of the limousine, his body leaning to the left.
And in front of them on the street they saw three men go down from the shots -- one of them struck near the right eye. The man who had been shot in the head fell face forward, sprawled across a grate. Blood dripped from his head across the grate an down the sidewalk toward the hotel entrance. The man was Brady. Near him on the sidewalk lay Timothy J. MCArthy, a Secret Service agent and Thomas K. Delahanty, a District of Columbia metropolitan policeman.
By now, the crowd was growing as word spread that someone had tried to kill the president. Police yelled at the spectators trying to clear the street. The limousine bearing the president sped off.
Reporters noticed that the right rear door was dented and the rear window cracked from bullets that had struck the car but failed to penetrate.
The three wounded men remained on the sidewalk outside the hotel. Brady's head continued to bleed, and someone brought a white handkerchief in a vain attempt to staunch the flow of blood. A revolver, apparently dropped by one of the other wounded men, lay in the gutter beside him. Within minutes, two ambulances roared up to the Hilton to take the wounded men away.
Meanwhile, Secret Service agents protected the man who had been holding the gun. They took him to a police car and tried to put him inside. But the door was locked, so they took him to another police car instead.
Most of the reporters who had watched Reagan speak to the national conference of the building trades unions were still inside the hotel when all of this happened. The first they knew of it was when Dean Reynolds of United Press Internation ran by them, pushing people aside in his haste to reach a phone.
Outside the hotel, despite the best efforts of the police, the crowd was growing. Reporters interviewed people at random and each other, hoping to find an eyewitness. They found several, including a television cameraman who had photographed most of the event.
The television cameraman was Henry M. Brown of ABC, who said he had complained earlier to the Secret Service that members of the public had "penetrated the police line," creating crowded conditions in the press area and making it difficult to work. His complaint went unheeded, and Brown went on working. He was standing near the assailant when he started to fire.
"He just opened up and kept squeezing the trigger," Brown said.
Stephen P. Sung is also a television cameraman. He works for NBC, and he knows about shootings. Sung was on the airport runway in Guyana the day Rep. Leo J. Ryan was shot to death. Sung was wounded himself. This is what he saw yesterday.
"We were facing them, we're doing a documentry on the first 100 days of the presidency, and we were in the pool," Sung said. "A blond guy, 29, 30, brings a gun right in Reagan's line of sight. I saw Reagan drop, then six people pushed him [the suspected gunman] against the stone wall. They tackled his whole body and wrestled him against the stone wall. Then they rushed him into a police car. Brady was very bad. There was blood all over his face. He moved a little bit."
By now, the first news of the story was appearing on radio and television news bulletins, and reporters rushed to the Hilton from all over the city. Police hastily cordoned off the shooting area. Few at the scene knew that the president himself had been hit, and their knowledge of what had happened was not improved when David Prosperi, a deputy White House press secretary, informed them that Reagan was unhurt and safely back at the White House.
But there were those at the Hilton who had actually seen what had happened.
Three of the eyewitnesses were from Davenport, Iowa. They were in Washington to lobby for federal programs which the Reagan administration would like to cut. They were Mayor Charles Wright, city administrator Robert Mulready and assistant city administrator Michael Kadlecik. The three men were at the scene by chance. One of their meetings had been canceled, and when they came back to the Hilton they were told the president was there.
"Let's go see the president," Mulready said.
Kadlecik was standing next to the man who had fired the gun. He had been waiting outside for 20 minutes and he never noticed the suspected assailant until he was captured. A man standing between Kadlecik and the assailant called out to the president. Reagan turned and at that moment the assailant stepped forward. Kadlecik noticed his arm come up with a gun and the shots rings out. Immediately, the suspect as buried by Secret Service agents, and Kadlecik ran for cover behind a potted plant.
Mark Atwood, a 28-year-old lawyer for the Civl Aeronautics Board, was standing in front of the lower-level hotel entrance when the shooting occurred. sHe saw the president stop and wave to the crowd. Then he heard "popping sounds" and saw the Secret Service agents jumping on a man who was holding a handgun.
"They kept wrestling with the man on the ground," Atwood said. "The policemen were screaming for everybody to get out of the way."
Bit by bit, the reporters at the scene began to piece together what had happened from eyewitness accounts such as these. But it was 45 minutes before they learned the most crucial information, which was that Reagan was not back at the White House at all but was at George Washington University Hospital with a bullet in his lung.
This information at first came from Kent Jarrel, a Channel 9 reporter who was among the first at the shooting scene.
Everyone present had a nearly identical description of the suspect as a "white, blond male," and one said he was wearing a raincoat, a blue shirt and dark trousers. No one knew who he was. Several minutes after reporters at the scene learned that Reagan had been shot, they also heard that the suspected assailant had been identified as John W. Hinckley Jr. of Evergreen, Colo., and that the Secret Service agent who had shoved Reagan into the car was Jerry Parr, chief of the presidential protection detail.
Reagan, like other presidents, had always known that he might be the target of an assassination attempt.
In California, when he became goveror during a time of civil protests and disturbances, there had been much talk about improving the normally relaxed state security procedures. While no one talked about it much for the record, they were improved. One of the increased security measures was the installation of bullet-proof glass on the governor's ground-floor office.
In his first years as governor, Reagan was known to be concerned about whether he was adequately protected. These concerns faded as the years went by without incident. But they were revived on Nov. 20, 1975, the first day of Reagan's campaign against then-President Ford, when a man in a Florida crowd pulled a toy pistol on him.
Reagan said afterward that he at first thought the pistol was real.
Within a few days, and the inevitable pressures of a difficult political campaign, the toy gun-episode was all but forgotten. But what happened yesterday at the Washington Hilton Hotel will be remembered for a long, long time.
It will be remembered by Trang Vu, a cocktail waitress at the hotel who walking outside the hotel, coming back from a break, when she heard the shots and saw the wounded men fall to the ground.
"It was the first time I ever saw anyone get shot," she said.
It will be remembered by Ramon Flores, who works for the Agency for International Development, and saw Reagan's knees buckle when the shot hit him. It will be remembered by William J. Lyden of Youngstown, Ohio, who was attending the building trades convention and saw the muzzle flashes of the gun. It will be remembered by Gilbert Lewthwaite of the Baltimore Sun, who saw the agents pin the suspected gunman against the wall, and by Frank Roth, a roofer from Lake Charles, La., who saw Reagan came out of the hotel.
"He turned and waved to people as he came out, and just then all hell broke loose," Roth said.
And it will be remembered by the reporters who covered Reagan and who fought with and kidded with the irrepressible Brady, who was known for his jokes and his love of good food and who called himself "the Bear."
Two hours after the shooting, the special laboratory van from the FBI was at the scene, the crowds were still milling around, the rain was pouring down. A buttoned umbrella that may have belonged to one of the wounded was lying in the gutter, untouched.
The rain by then had washed away the blood which had spotted the sidewalk where Brady fell.