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Thirty Years Since Failed Reagan Assassination Attempt

File: Former President Reagan leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel just moments before shots were fired on March 30, 1981. Michael Evans/Keystone/CNP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- It's been thirty years since a madman attempted to kill president Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.

The last of John Hinkley Jr.'s six bullets ricocheted off the president's limousine and wound up less than an inch from his heart as he departed a speaking engagement on March 30, 1981.

ABC News' Sam Donaldson gave the initial report from the scene, declaring, "I don't know whether the president was hit. I don't believe he was."  Donaldson reported that the president's car drove off rapidly after the shots rang out at the scene.

Newly-released secret service tapes shed light on the confusion and the chaos that took place moments after the shooting.

"Shots fired. Shots fired," a voice can be heard saying on the radio transmissions.

Secret Service agents threw the president into the bulletproof limousine, initially directing the motorcade back to the most secure place around. "Back to the White House," the voice on the tape says.

Agents at first claimed Reagan was unharmed, using his Secret Service codename:  "Rawhide is okay."

But the president was not.  He began to spit up blood. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr was lying on top of Reagan in the back of the limo. When it appeared President Reagan had been hit, they headed for the hospital.

"We want to go to the emergency room," the tape says. "Going to George Washington fast."

Agent Parr can be heard saying, "Let's hustle." Parr's decision was credited with saving the president's life.

The recording reveals no shouting. The agents remained calm, using terse phrases to make clear that their worst nightmare was unfolding.

Robyn Ringler was one of Reagan's nurses at George Washington Hospital.

"He was really close to death," she said.  "The first two evenings I took care of him, I left the hospital both nights wondering if he would still be there the next day."

At the time of the shooting, Vice President George Bush was unreachable while flying back from Texas. Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously asserted his authority.

In just ten days, Reagan bounced back.  Thirty years later, his wounded press secretary, Jim Brady, leads the fight for gun control.  His shooter, John Hinckley Jr., now 55, regularly asks for more time away from the mental hospital where he's been incarcerated since being found not guilty of the attempted assassination by reason of insanity.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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