March 30, 1981 – Starting off normal, unremarkable in so many ways – but by mid-morning East Coast time, pandemonium had broken out. President Reagan, on his way out of the Washington Hilton, where he had just finished delivering an address to a group of trade unionists at the AFofL/CIO National Conference Of Building and Construction Trades, shots rang out. The assailant, 25 year old John Hinckley Jr. fired at the President, who was no more than a few feet from his waiting limousine. Hinckley sprayed the area and wounded several Secret Service Agents as well as seriously wounding Press Secretary James Brady before the President was hustled into his car. What no one knew at the time was that the President was wounded himself – a single bullet puncturing his lung.
In the confusion, Hinckley was wrestled to the ground while the President was taken out of harms way. When it was learned the Presidential motorcade was heading to the George Washington Hospital, rather than back to the White House, a new wave of panic erupted, as reporters scrambled to find out whatever shred of news they could get. Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced to the gathering reporters that he was, for the moment, in charge and that order would be restored.
But as the story was unfolding, it was clear all was not as it first seemed – that there was a real possibility President Reagan was in worse condition than had been initially indicated. James Brady was seriously wounded and it was wondered if he would survive, as was the condition of one of the Secret Service agents w ho stood put himself between the President and the would-be assailant.
It was a nail-biting day, and by the end of it, there were more questions than answers. But the President had survived an assassination attempt and only time would clear up the fog of uncertainty.
Here is the first 2 hours of reports via CBS Radio News and the storm of confusion which took place on March 30, 1981.
who had just concluded his speech in a Washington hotel to a union meeting. The White House says the president was not hit. My colleague Jim Tucker is on the scene. Limb. You're in Washington. I don't know where. But what do you know? And what did you see? Read? I am a business Lem Tucker. I am right across the street from the ballroom entrance of the Hilton Hotel. Ronald Reagan. I had just finished about a 30 minute speech to an A f l C i o meeting. He was leaving through what we call in the press the presidential entrance. It was about a 30 ft walk to his car, less. Maybe he turned to Wayne. And I believe a reporter called out Mr Reagan. The crowd was mixed, not just press people, and suddenly we heard the pop pop pop. Oh, I know. I heard at least five shots. The first thought someone hollered firecrackers! And then we realized it was more than that at this point. Or at that point, secret servicemen did what they do so well. The reflexes went to work. They grab. The president literally threw him into the back seat of his limousine and the motor K sped away. They did get a man. We have to say at this point believed to have been the assailants so far. At last last I could see and I can see some of the activity from here. Perhaps you can see here the sirens as the ambulance has come up and lead. Three people have been wounded. Three people were down on the ground by the ballroom entrance Here. One man appeared to have sustained a head injury to others. We could not ascertain where they were hit. A second ambulance Now just pulling away. It appears that there is still one person on the ground. The man that they took away And the man we have to say at this point only believed to be the assailant was white, appeared to be in his late thirties or forties, kind of sandy blonde hair. I did not get the best look at him. Our cameraman, who was on the scene, described it to me. And needless to say, other shock and panic broke out here. Yeah, at this point, yet another ambulance has just pulled up. There really is no more at this point, except to say that it is my understanding that the president of the United States was taken away from the scene totally uninjured by this time, I'm sure is back at the White House, and the more information will be coming from there. But I repeat, there was no indication by those of us who were eyewitnesses to this scene that the president was hit. I'm not sure there is any such good thing as a 100% good, competent eyewitness to any sort of seeing such as that, because the moment those pop pops of a pistol stark, you naturally start shrinking back into building entrances of death. But that is what we are fairly certain has happened. Let me recapitulate with you. This happened outside the hotel. The Washington Washington Hilton is one of two Hilton's here. It is a monster of a hotel, really huge. It's on Connecticut Avenue. For those who may know Washington oh, three or four blocks above DuPont Circle or a landmark here. There is, of course, the main entrance leading to the lobby. And then, if you take a side street, there is the ballroom entrance. I think it may be Florida Avenue. I'm not sure there is the ballroom entrance and through which thousands of people pass, Uh, every week, as major conventions are held there. Well, just before you reach that entrance, there is a small door entrance way, which has been dubbed over the years. I'm told the presidential entrance and exit that allows security. You can take the president and his party in that way and out that way there on the street, a minimum of time. They go down secure corridors. They go into the ballroom, as the president did this afternoon on arriving there, the president was introduced. It was a meeting of the building and trades Council of the F L C i o. He got a I would say a warm reception had just concluded. And as we have other reporters have other reporters inside. I had left early because I wanted to be outside to see him to part, maybe to ask him a question about Poland. And as I said he was, or if I had the count, I would guess he was 15 to 20 ft outside that door. He was 5 to 10, maybe 15 ft from the limousine When, uh, there's only one description for it. All hell broke loose. Could you detect any reaction the president had, or did he have time to do it? Now read. At that point, I'm afraid that I was not 100% your best eyewitness. I was aware of the president appearing to Crouch. I'm not sure if that was his own reflex or the agents whose reflexes are usually very good in this type of situation. Whether that was the agent starting to push in, sharpen jostle him. One of the things I have to say that that, uh, became rather alarming to us is the press area was not what we call a secure area. Quite often in these things, they will put up a rope. They will say, Okay, only press here, Secret Service and policemen will make sure that there are no civilians. Shall we call them in that area? But there were a lot of civilians in that area. There were civilians to my right, civilians to my left, and I would have to see the man that they they may have done this, to be sure, but I think he was standing No more than two people away from me against the wall. And I was very, very close into that war. But we don't All we know at this point, if he appears to them, gotten out of here. The president totally unharmed. A failing imagined assailant. Uhh literally had about 10 policemen sitting on top of them at one point, uh, submachine guns, pistols, rifles. A police car was brought up. They had to tussle with him a debt to get him into the back seat of the car. And again, they left with what appeared to be a couple of policemen sitting on him as they drove away. If you have not heard, shots were fired at President Ronald Reagan this afternoon as he left a speech in the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D. C. Mr Reagan was not hit. He was not hurt. The White House has confirmed this. He was rushed into his limousine after the shots broke out and he was taken onto the White House. The president of the United States is safe. However, several people were wounded in this fuselage of bullets, and we understand that one of them may have been that the presidential press secretary himself. Let's go now and find out more. My colleague Glenn Tucker, who gave us this first report. Lin, do you know any more about this? Read. I just came back from the scene where a colleague of mine, a press colleague who was out there at the same time that I was that the shooting took place, who stayed during some of the initial Franco's, which I watched from a drugstore window across the street and described earlier. He tells me and I'm couch this ever so carefully because we have no confirmation of this. He tells me that one of the people on the ground, the man to whom I referred earlier as appearing to have a head room, was James Brady, who is the press secretary to the president of the United States. Uh, Mr Brady certainly was close at the time Mr Reagan was exiting the building. We have no other. I have no under identification at this point on the other two bystanders, but one who were injured. One is thought to have been a hotel security agent. All three of the people who were injured and down on the sidewalk have been removed now by emergency vehicles. Two nearby hospitals. Mm. Once again to tell you what went on here not too long ago, the president of the United States has just completed a speech to several 1000 members of the building and Trades Council of the A F L C i. O. And was leaving through what is considered a secured exit the presidential doors to the side of the main ballroom. He just emerged from the Hilton Hotel. He waved. The crowd had built, there were civilians. Shall we call them mixed in with accredited press? People are wearing badges. The press people he waved. Someone said I heard his name used. I don't know if that was a colleague of mine about to ask a question or if it was a bystander getting his attention. The next thing we know that the president wave lifted his arm the way the shots rang out. How many? Well, that we will have to leave. For the experts, it seemed from where I was to have been at least four or five. They came from very close to where I was standing, and seconds later the police had surrounded a gentleman who appeared. And I cautioned that sometimes I've witness reports at the time. Some thing like this is going on or not, 100% totally accurate. But he appeared to be any sort of sandy bond, uh, thought by some to be late thirties or forties. He was wrestled to the ground. Um uh, at least eight or 10 agents appeared to be sitting on him, and they had their weapons drawn. Submachine guns, rifles, pistols. And the man was thinking back over there, they had him down on the ground, at least in the almost the exact spot where I had been standing, along with a colleague from ABC News and cameraman from all three of the networks. There are also civilians very close. They're they're seeing now, and I am watching it from just across the street through windows of a drugstore, his master bedroom with Secret Service agents and police roaming through the crowd questioning. Jim McManus was there for part of that. And here's my colleague Jim McManus. The Secret Service right now are questioning a man, a bystander who says that immediately after the shots were fired, he and two other men with him companions. There's apparently, uh, saw a white male running from the scene, carrying of what they described as a black box. They did not say what size the box was. Neither of the witnesses nor is neither the witness nor his two companions would identify themselves. Uh, there's no, at least at this juncture, no direct connection to the shooting. But three men who say, right after the shots were fired, a man burst by them, running from the scene carrying a black box. The witnesses will not identify themselves again. They apparently are concerned that if they are identified that they might become vulnerable. Two attacks upon themselves, mhm crowded.