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40 years ago, Reagan's young presidency was almost ended by assassin's bullet

40 years ago, Reagan's young presidency was almost ended by assassin's bullet
Secret Service agents tend to White House press secretary James Brady and wounded police officer Thomas Delahanty after they were shot by John Hinckley Jr. (right background) during an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. File Photo by Don Rypka/UPI | License Photo

March 30 (UPI) -- Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most precarious near misses in American presidential history -- Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C., just a few weeks into his first term and almost became the fifth American leader to be felled by an assassin's bullet.

Reagan, who at age 69 was then the oldest president ever inaugurated, visited the Washington Hilton Hotel not far from the White House on March 30, 1981, to deliver a speech for the AFL-CIO labor union. He had no idea what awaited him outside.

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Exiting the hotel's special presidential access door on the south side of the building, Reagan waved to a throng of well-wishers as he walked the 20 or 30 feet to the presidential limousine. Just feet from the safety of the armored Lincoln Continental, a bevy of gunshots rang out.

"The shots sounded like firecrackers as they exploded from the gun. From the close -- 10 feet range -- from which they were fired, it appeared they were fired from some kind of pistol," UPI reported that Monday afternoon in one of the first reports of the shooting.

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"When the shots were fired people began to panic, ducking, sometimes falling to the ground, others in a crouch."

"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," UPI reporter Dean Reynolds wrote in the aftermath of the shooting.

"It was a scene that had lasted no more than 20 or 30 seconds after Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel ... but it seemed to transpire in slow motion."

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Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, who'd been standing behind the president, almost reflexively grabbed Reagan by the shoulders and flung him into the car -- so hard that Reagan initially thought that he'd broken a rib and began coughing up blood.

The car sped off and Parr checked Reagan to make sure he was OK. Before long, it was clear the president wasn't OK and Parr ordered the limousine to divert to George Washington University Hospital. There, it was ultimately discovered by doctors in the trauma room that one of the bullets had hit Reagan near his left armpit.

It was actually quite an unlikely hit. The .22 caliber bullet from John Hinckley Jr.'s Rohm RG-14 six-shot revolver ricocheted off the side of the armored limo, passed through the small space at the open door and entered Reagan's left side. The bullet broke a rib, partly collapsed a lung and came to rest less than an inch from the president's heart.

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Back at the Washington Hilton was a scene of bloody chaos. Three other people had been shot by Hinckley, who opened fire at near point blank range. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, Reagan's press secretary James Brady and Washington Metro Police officer Thomas Delahanty were all on the ground. Brady had been shot in the forehead.

Gunman John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots at President Reagan at the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. This photo was later found among his possessions. UPI Photo/File

Although all three would survive, they would never return to normal. It took weeks for McCarthy to recover; Delahanty, who'd been shot in the neck, ultimately had to retire from the D.C. police force and Brady was permanently brain damaged. At one point a few hours after the shooting, all three major U.S. networks incorrectly reported that Brady had died.

Back at the hospital, Reagan nearly died of his wound. The president lost several liters of blood before doctors in the trauma room could control the wound. For a time, ER doctors didn't know how to extract the bullet from Reagan's lung and briefly considered leaving it in. Fears that it could later dislodge on its own and work its way into the bloodstream, which would be a fatal turn of events, ultimately prompted doctors to remove it.

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While Reagan was in the emergency room, first lady Nancy Reagan hastily made her way to George Washington University Hospital and was later met with a now-famous greeting from the president: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

Well-known for his charisma and knack for communication, Reagan also brought a little bit of comic relief into the operating room that afternoon, jokingly telling the room of surgeons, "I hope you're all Republicans."

Dr. Joseph Giordano, a lifelong Democrat and chief of the hospital's trauma team, summed up the feelings of the entire medical staff by answering, "Mr. President, today we're all Republicans."

Reagan stayed in the hospital for weeks but went on to make a full recovery and served for almost eight more years in the White House.

Hinckley was ultimately tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent decades in a Washington, D.C., institution before he was released in 2016. His release came with numerous conditions and he was ordered to live full time at his mother's Virginia home.

Brady died in 2014 and the press briefing room at the White House was named in his honor. Ronald Reagan died in 2004, Nancy Reagan in 2016 and Parr in 2015.

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To mark the 40th anniversary of the shooting on Tuesday evening, four of the people who were involved in the historic event in 1981 will speak during a panel hosted by the Reagan Foundation -- McCarthy, who later became police chief in Orland Park, Ill., and retired in 2020; Secret Service agent Ray Shaddick, who helped Parr shove Reagan into the limo and shut the door; former White House staffer Rick Ahearn; and former presidential speechwriter Mari Will, who wrote the speech Reagan delivered before he was shot.

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