‘Lord, Let Him Live,’ Reagan’s Secret Service Agent Prayed
I can remember this vividly. I was working in Boston at the time, and as I was leaving my office, I glanced at the T.V. Funny how pictures and memories stay in your mind isn't it?
On March 30, 1981, I was the Secret Service agent in charge of the Presidential Protective Division. President Reagan was giving a speech at the Washington Hilton hotel that afternoon, but I was not scheduled to accompany him.
We didn’t yet know each other well — it was early in his term — and since it’s never good for the head of a detail to be a stranger to the president, I realized that this would be a good opportunity for us to spend some time together. So I arranged to take the trip to the speech after all.
At about 2 p.m., I rode with the president to the Hilton hotel. Our arrival was routine, which was no surprise. This was the 110th time a U.S. president had visited the Hilton since 1972.
After the president delivered his speech, he left the hotel and we moved toward his limousine in a diamond formation — one agent in front, one in back, and one on each side. Suddenly, when the president was 6 or 7 feet from the open car door, six quick shots rang out.
When danger threatens, agents are trained to cover and evacuate. I instantly pushed the president into the car behind agent Tim McCarthy, who spread out his body to enlarge the shield of the armored door and window.
The president extended his arms to block his fall and we both landed inside the car. The president’s head hit the seat; his chest hit the transmission riser. Agent Ray Shaddick shoved our feet and legs in and slammed the door behind us.
About three seconds had passed. I yelled to driver Drew Unrue to move out fast to the White House. As I helped the president to a sitting position, I noticed a mark on the right rear bullet-proof window. Clearly the window had stopped one of the would-be assassin’s shots. Looking through the rear window as we moved away, I saw three people down on the sidewalk.
In the car, I checked the president for blood, working my hands around his body from the belt-line up, under each arm, along his back, neck and head. I saw nothing and thought he had escaped harm.
But about 20 seconds into the run, the president took a napkin from his pocket and spit up a bit of frothy, bright red blood. He thought he’d cut his lip, but I suspected a lung injury. I had a choice to make: Head to the ultra-secure White House or divert to George Washington University Hospital. I told him we should go to the hospital; he nodded agreement. There was very little talk between us.
We arrived in about three minutes. Ray Shaddick opened our door. I extended my hand, but the president wanted to walk in alone. Ray and I guided him inside where he immediately collapsed. With help we carried him to Trauma Bay 5 in GW’s emergency room.
President Reagan was pale and unconscious, his blood pressure low and his pulse faint. One of the bullets fired by John Hinckley had found its mark, and now the president was suffering massive internal bleeding.
I thought about President Kennedy’s assassination and worried that we had lost another president. I silently prayed, “Lord, let him live!”
As the world knows, President Reagan survived and thrived. Some people say I saved the president, but I never say that.
Thirty years later, I look back on that historic day and know for certain that his life was saved by dedicated agents, excellent training, good equipment, outstanding medical care, President Reagan’s robust constitution — and the grace of God.
Jerry S. Parr retired in 1985 as assistant director of the U.S. Secret Service.