Ronald Reagan's Near-Fatal Shooting Revisited 30 Years Later

Reflections of those who were there and helped saved the president's life.

March 30, 2011 — -- It was a moment of truth for the country and President Reagan.

It was March 30, 1981, and the president was in Washington D.C. There were six shots. They took less than two seconds.

Afterward, there was chaos and suspected gunman John Hinckley Jr., 25, was being subdued by a bristling pack of Secret Service agents.

Hank Brown, an ABC cameraman, kept rolling as Reagan was rushed to safety.

"His face, it was like somebody had hit him," Brown said. "I will remember that."

It was barely two months after Reagan's inauguration, and the young, untested presidency was facing a crisis. He'd been elected in a landslide but the country -- mired by a sour economy and stymied in a dangerous world -- was fretful. Americans were just getting to know Reagan.

Inside the limousine after the shooting, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr shared some good news using the president's code name, "Rawhide."

"Back to the White House. Back to the White House. Rawhide is OK," Parr said.

As the limousine headed for the White House, the most secure location in Washington, Parr said over the radio that the president seemed to be unhurt.

Forty-six seconds after that statement, Parr was making a beeline to the hospital. Reagan was coughing up a lot of blood in the backseat.

"Roger, we want to go to the [inaudible] room. George Washington," he said. "That's a Roger. We're going to George Washington fast!"

Del Quentin Wilber, the author of "Rawhide Down," said that move saved Reagan's life.

"If he had gone to the White House, Reagan would have died," Wilber said.

As the country held its breath, it learned something about its new president.

"Here he is lying on the operating room table," said Dr. Joseph Giordano, who led the George Washington University Hospital team that worked on Reagan, "and just lying on the table and [he] sort of got up a little bit and looked at me. [He] said, 'I hope you all are Republicans,' with a big smile on his face. That is incredible behavior for a man that just has been shot."

Joanne Bell, a hospital nurse, said that after Reagan's three-hour surgery, she had to tell the 70-year-old commander-in-chief to stop chatting.

"I told him as respectfully as I could, 'I want you to shut up and get some sleep,'" Bell said.

Most of what a president does fades into the history books, but 30 years ago today, it wasn't what Reagan did that was so memorable. It was who he was.