The white jeep that carried John Paul II had just finished circling St. Peter's Square, pausing occasionally for the beaming pope to bless 10,000 faithful, when the shots rang out.
First there was a terrible quiet. And then, what had been a sunny Wednesday gathering was filled with screams, shoving bystanders grabbing at strangers, and glimpses of blood flowing on the robes of the pope. St Peter's Square became both a stage and a mourning center for the shooting of John Paul II, searing the memories and emotions of thousands who were there.
Minutes after the shooting, Polish members of the crowd were singing hymns. Dozens of others were crying, praying together, or waiting silently for the bulletins and messages on the pope's condition that came over loudspeakers. Hours later, a crowd of 7,000 was still in the square, resisting attempts by the police to move them away.
A priest led those who remained in prayer. Under the Bernini colonnade, just a few feet from where Pope John Paul II was shot, small groups of weeping women fell to their knees and prayed with rosaries grasped in their hands.
"The world is sick, sick, sick," said Anna Pietrangelo, 55, who rushed to the square from her apartment several blocks away when she heard the news on the radio.
"There is no sense to any of it any more," she said, clutching her rosary beads and crying. "Why would anybody want to shoot the pope?"
When the attack came at 21 minutes after 5, the pontiff, who was just about to begin his weekly general audience under sunny skies in unseasonably cool May weather, looked fit and appeared in a joyous mood, according to witnesses.
"I was standing right in front. I had just taken a beautiful picture of him, when five or six seconds later I heard the shots and then all bedlam went loose," said Gene Holsten of Minneapolis, Minn.
"I heard two shots, maybe three," said a young Spanish man who witnessed the shooting. "I saw blood flowing down his shirt, hi white robe."
"The jeep had just finished a circuit of the piazza and was about to drive toward the (St. Peter's) Basilica," recounted the Rev. Francesco Ceriotti, a priest with the Italian Episcopal Conference.
"I was standing on the other side of the square. I wanted to stay there and hear his speech. I saw that he was on his feet, then there were shots. He bent over and then I couldn't see him. The jeep sped up and drove away at top speed."
After the shots, the crowd began to push and shove and run away from the sight of the shooting in the northwest corner of the vast square. Several young monks raced by the Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square shouting, "They've shot the pope! They've shot the pope!"
Security agents quickly picked up the 60-year-old pontiff and put him in a car. Within minutes of the shooting, he was taken to the Gemelli hospital, where John Paul II was rushed into surgery, another crowd gathered to wait for news and pray. A policeman said the pope "appeared to be suffering but he was serene."
Meanwhile, in St. Peter's Square the crowd was asked to say the Lord's prayer. The hymns by the Polish contingent began. Three police cars with their sirens wailing slowly pushed through the crowd to the point where the shooting occurred. A dozen other cruisers arrived on the scene within minutes and parked on the edge of the square with lights flashing.
"A priest came to the microphone and said the Holy Father had been wounded and we would now pray for his recovery," said Kathleen Naureckas, a graphics coordinator for the Chicago Tribune who gave an account to be the paper by telephone.
"He was followed by another priest who spoke in English. There were other announcements in other languages, and then another priest began saying the rosary, leading the crowd in Latin."
"After the announcements and rosary, a priest brought out a portrait of Our Lady and placed it on the pope's empty chair," Naureckas said. ". . . The sun had slipped behind St. Peter's. It was suddenly very chilly. The crowd seemed stunned. Lots of people were crying, but very quiety."
When a priest announced in six languages over the loudspeaker that the pope did not appear to be in critical condition, some people in the crowd stopped praying and broke into scattered applause.
After the announcement, they began praying again.
Betty Holsten described how she felt moments before the shooting. "I had a beautiful vision of a gentleman going by. We are not Catholic but we were experiencing something very inspirational."
A few hours after the shooting, when much of St. Peter's Square was cleared, a large group of Polish pilgrims escorted by a handful of black-cassocked priests continued to keep a vigil. Singing hymns and fingering their rosaries, they huddled in a tightly knit group under a makeshift podium where the pope was to have held his outdoor audience.
Finally, as light faded from the Roman sky, they headed out of the square in a small procession. At its head were four dressed in blue and white national costumes and carrying an icon of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa. Trailing behind plainly dressed men and women carrying red and white Polish flags and wearing Polish badges softly chanted.
Elsewhere in the Italian capital, sirens blared, police cars sped through the streets and helicopters hovered overhead as news of the attack spread. For two hours, squad cars blocked off the major arteries between downtown Rome and the Vactican.
A number of wild rumors circulated in the emotional atmosphere. One was that there had been three gunmen and that police were hunting for two of them. Other erroneous reports concerned the nature of the pontiff's wounds and the seriousness of his condition.
Knots of Romans gathered around blue and white police vehicles to listen to the police band's latest reports. As the word spread that the pope's life did not appear to be in danger, the streets gradually emptied and by 9:30 p.m. the statge radio and televison stopped its continuous coverage and began broadcasting regularly scheduled programs.