WASHINGTON -- At the sound of gunfire the president's smile vanished.
Ronald Reagan's face turned ashen. He looked frightened and then bewildered by the loud report.
There was no immediate indication he had been hit by the gunfire that erupted not more than 10 or 15 feet away.
Secret Service agents flanking the president spun him in the direction of the open passenger door of the limousine and pushed him with tremendous force head first into the back seat. 'Get back! Get back!' they yelled to the crowd.
As soon as he was inside, the heavy, steel-plated door with its inch-thick, bullet-proof windows slammed shut and the auto sped off in a wail of sirens, screeching tires and racing engines.
A young blond man was being subdued on the sidewalk by several Secret Service agents and policemen. One bystander ran up to the man and socked him in the face.
People were screaming and ducking as the agents, toting Israeli-made submachineguns, and police officers brandished their weapons.
It was a scene that had lasted no more than 20 or 30 seconds after Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel where he had addressed a union convention and started toward his limousine.
But it seemed to transpire in slow motion.
Waving and smiling to several hundred people who lined the sidewalk and the nearby street, the president was in his usual ebullient mood as he moved toward his car.
The president raised his arm in a wave to the well-wishers.
He looked to his left and slightly behind him, his face creased by a smile.
Suddenly, shots -- sounding like loud firecrackers -- rang out in rapid succession. I thought I saw a puff of smoke near the president. Then I smelled the gunpowder. My initial recollection was that there had been four shots, but it was evidently six.
I was not counting shots, however. My attention was riveted on Reagan.
I ran inside the hotel, brushing aside passersby who were walking leisurely through the lobby, I remembered that I had not actually seen anyone hit by the gunfire.
It was only later that I learned my friend, White House press secretary Jim Brady, had been gravely wounded. A police officer on the scene said one of his colleagues and another Secret Service agent had also been shot.
As I scrambled for a telephone, it occurred to me my action -- running so obviously against the flow of people -- might be interpreted as suspicious.
I had felt the same nagging worry almost nine years ago when, as a reporter covering the campaign of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, I watched another assassination attempt unfold before my eyes.
I located an office telephone and hurriedly dialed the UPI Washington bureau.
'Dave, Dave,' I shouted to my editor on the other end of the line. 'Reagan's been shot at!' It did not appear the president had been hit by the shots and, in fact, it was some time before his wound was confirmed.
I was overcome by emotion, and the sudden rush of adrenalin left me nearly breathless. I blurted out the bulletin and groped for details as my mind raced over the scene I had just witnessed.
As I walked back outside, rain splattered on the sidewalk. Not enough had fallen to wash away the blood.