Watching history unfold amid rain, chaos, TV lights

"The President shot?" "No way. I heard it on the radio. Three other guys were hit." The cabbie spun the dial and selected another station. A disco beat of relentless banality filled the vehicle. Outside, the rain smacked on the roof of the cab with all the ferocity of a late monsoon.

Heedless of the downpour, reporters and camera crews were massing around the entrance to the George Washington University Hospital.

Anyone who left from a sheltered side door with any information on the drama unfolding inside was speedily enveloped by reporters.

"It was chaos," said a nurse who refused to be identified. "Really chaotic. There were calls for everybody. People were running everywhere."

With the hospital sealed off by Secret Service agents and few staff members willing to talk, the wet and disheveled press corps seemed temporarily neutralized.

Suddenly a White House aide announced to the increasingly impatient reporters that a press center would be opned across the road at the university's medical center.

Ignoring traffic, the press swarmed over to the building, ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson somehow contriving to broadcast en route. To the amazement of watching students, the sodden column streamed into Ross Hall, and dug in for a long vigil. As perspiring television crews hurried to set up lights and cameras , Byron Matthai, the director of campus police, began to weed out students who had lipped into the hall to watch history being made. Few left without angry words.

With a promised briefing by White House aide Lyn Nofziger still an hour away, reporter Ross Simpson of the Mutual Broadcasting System took to the microphones to tell the restless throng what he had learned when he had slipped into the hospital earlier with the wife of White House press secretary James Brady and two Secret Service agents.

Simpson, who said he had gleaned his information from a doctor (one of whose colleagues had attended the President) and from a medical student, told the hushed audience that the bullet that struck Mr. Reagan had "missed his heart by one inch."

Simpson briefly related what he had been told of the President's condition and observed: "There's no reason to believe they can't repair the damage."

He added that Mrs. Brady had asked doctors "a battery of questions" about her husband and the President. Then she began to cry, he said.

Half an hour later Mr. Nofziger entered the lecture hall to announce that the President's condition was deemed "good and stable" by the doctors working on him.

With the unfailing instinct of an ex-reporter, Nofziger had noted some of the President's remarks on a sheet of paper that he produced from his pocket. "As he was going down the hall he winked at [White House chief of staff James] Baker ," Nofziger related. "He told [Nevada Sen. Paul] Laxalt, 'I'll make it' and asked [presidential counselor Edwin] Meese and [deputy chief of staff michael] Deaver, 'Who's minding the store?'"

Apart from the networks and local television stations, teams from National Public Radio and the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" descended on the temporary press headquarters as did a TV crew from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

As reporters grew hotter under the TV lights, university staff members bore in trays of do-it-yourself sandwiches, bottles of soft drink, and several large urns of coffee. Conscious that the eyes of the nation were on the university, the White House shipped in an official podium -- a Secret Service agent struggling to unpack it from a large metal crate.

Reporters gazed benignly on the scence of frenzy all around. "This must be the biggest story of the year," enthused one.

"My shirt is like a wet diaper," complained another, who had lingered too long in the rain.

Nofziger appeared again just after 6 p.m. to assert that the President had not undergone "open-heart" surgery and that reports of Brady's death were "absolutely untrue." A doctor would soon arrive to explain the medical position, he added.

Questioned as to a possible conspiracy in the shooting, Nofziger said he thought there had only been one gunman. "Wait and let the Secret Service and police do their investigation," he replied with a trace of irritation.

The makeshift press center rapidly began to empty, technicians dismantling equipment and hauling it outside to waiting vans, where some 10 mobile microwave transmitters ringed the building, their generators humming in the warm evening air.

It had stopped raining. three policemen outside the hospital were talking about Lee Harvey Oswald. Although the day had borne an unmistakable resemblance to another one in Dallas almost 18 years ago, the would-be assassin had been foiled in his apparently crazed attempt to kill the President. But only just, everyone seemed to agree. Only just.

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