WASHINGTON — A Secret Service audiotape 30 years old sheds light on the chaotic aftermath of Ronald Reagan's shooting when neither the president nor his guardians realized he'd been shot, and an agent's snap decision to get him to a hospital might have saved his life.
"Let's hustle," agent Jerry Parr is heard barking as Reagan's limousine suddenly changed course, the sight of the president's blood signaling there was more wrong with him than a bruised rib or two, as everyone thought right after the March 30, 1981, attack. The car, which had been spiriting Reagan back to the security of the White House after the spray of gunfire, sped to George Washington University Hospital instead. Reagan lost about half his blood and came closer to death that day than Americans realized for years later.
The Secret Service released the tape Friday in response to a public-records request from Del Wilber, a Washington Post reporter whose book, "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan," comes out next week.
Just over 10 minutes, the tape captures the urgent, confused yet coolly methodical radio communications among agents on the scene and the Secret Service command post, starting when the president and his entourage walked out of the Washington Hilton while John Hinckley Jr., with a pistol, stood waiting.
Hinckley opened fire, wounding press secretary James Brady in the head, police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen before his last bullet ricocheted off the limousine, grazing Reagan's rib and lodging in his lung. As has been known, Reagan and his protectors at first thought he'd merely hurt his ribs from being shoved into the vehicle by Parr.
At 2:27 p.m., 19 seconds into the tape, agent Ray Shaddick radios: "Advise, we've had shots fired. Shots fired. There are some injuries, uh, lay one on."
Sixteen seconds later, Parr radios assurance about a president whose Secret Service code name was drawn from the Westerns he loved: "Rawhide is OK. Follow-up. Rawhide is OK."
"You wanna go to the hospital or back to the White House?" Shaddick asks.
"We're going right. we're going to Crown," Parr says, using a code word for the White House.
"Back to the White House," Shaddick repeats. "Rawhide is OK."
Twenty-four seconds later, a voice asserts again: "Rawhide's alright."
But 25 seconds after that, the plan abruptly changes: "We want to go to the emergency room of George Washington."
Nowhere in the tape does anyone state that the president is hurt.
Inside the car, however, as participants have told it, Reagan was worsening. Parr had quickly checked Reagan as they sped away and finding nothing terribly amiss, preferred the safety and medical facilities of the White House to an unsecured hospital. And when Reagan found blood in his mouth, the president told his men he must have cut his lip. But Reagan was becoming more ashen, complained of trouble breathing and the bleeding did not appear to be from a mere cut. Parr ordered the diversion to the hospital.
"Go to George Washington fast," agent Drew Unrue is heard saying, at 01:57 minutes into the tape.
"Get an ambulance," Parr tells the command post, known as Horsepower. "I mean get the, um, stretcher out there." He wants the hospital to be ready to wheel the president in.
"We've made the call," Horsepower replies.
"Let's hustle," Parr says.
Sirens are heard, and a voice confirms that authorities have captured a suspect. Hinckley was piled on and arrested at the scene.
Less than four minutes after Reagan left the Hilton, the car carrying the stricken president arrives at the hospital. Moments later, "Rainbow" — Nancy Reagan — is on her way.
Reagan had suffered extensive internal bleeding, but his gunshot wound was not discovered until doctors examined him. As it turned out, he did not enter on a stretcher but got out of the car, walked in with the help of agents and began to collapse before those around him picked him up and carried him to the emergency room. Doctors were able to stabilize his blood pressure in short order before removing the bullet in surgery.
Secret Service website with audio: http://www.secretservice.gov/press/Reagan_Radio_Traffic.mp3