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Behind The Scenes Of History: Covering The President On March 30, 1981

This is the 25th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and you've probably seen (or will see) a lot of coverage of what happened that day. You'll see some of it tonight on the "Evening News," when Correspondent Bill Plante interviews Reagan's deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, about the day the president was shot. What you might not know is that the person editing tonight's "Evening News" piece is Charlie Wilson, who also happened to be working as a cameraman at the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981. He was taping the event as it happened for CBS News. You can watch his raw footage of that day by clicking on the video player below.(The video runs 3:38 and contains graphic language.)Wilson thought he was going to the Hilton to tape some quick cutaways of Reagan departing from the hotel following a speech, same as the rest of the news media there at the time.

He had just transitioned from a position as a White House technician, where he did camera and sound work, to sort of an interim position as a utility person – he did whatever anyone needed.

That day, the assignment editor at the time, Bill Galbraith, told him to go get a camera because CBS "needed a warm body," to shoot arrival and departure cutaways of President Reagan following an event the Hilton.

The only camera available, unfortunately, was pretty banged up, so Wilson ended up spending some time soldering camera parts together and fixing a tape deck that wouldn't stay on "record."

Back then, said Wilson, technology wasn't always reliable. "It wasn't always guaranteed that you'd get your shot," he said. Cameras typically "took a minute to fire up" and battery life was very short. So, camera crews keeping tabs on the president as they were that day, usually watched for a sight of the White House photographer, which signaled that the president wasn't far behind.

Fortunately, Wilson had begun rolling his camera about a second before the Reagan emerged from the Hilton.

And a few seconds later, the shots were fired. Reagan, Press Secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent and a D.C. police officer were wounded.

When Wilson first heard the gunshots, "I thought it was a prank," said Wilson. "It sounded like firecrackers" not gunshots.

Of course, it became clear pretty quickly that it was something serious, as Wilson watched people fall to the ground and saw a secret service agent pull a large gun out of his briefcase.

But his focus remained on making sure he was getting the footage he needed. "The first thing on my mind was, I'll really be in trouble if it turns out my soldering technique didn't work," he said.

Nonetheless, Wilson remained calm. "When you're right there, in close quarters with the situation – it seems very intimate," he said. From that viewpoint, says Wilson, it's difficult to comprehend how profound an event like that one actually is.

Watching the event unfold through a camera's viewfinder, says Wilson, "you feel detached" from the event, "somewhat immune from it, like you're watching it on the History Channel."

But Wilson clearly wasn't the only one focusing on the job at hand. As we watched the video, he pointed out an NBC soundman (he's the guy in the video in a beige coat holding a microphone) who – despite the fact that he'd never been in the field before – remained "completely unfazed," as well, says Wilson. "He's shoving the mike all over the place."

Wilson says he tried to get as many angles and wide shots as possible, since he had no idea if there was another shooter or something else going on that needed to be documented on camera.

As soon as Reagan's limo left, says Wilson, CBS correspondent Lem Tucker ran across the street to a payphone – no cell phones in 1981 – to call in a report, as Wilson continued taping.

Since Wilson was originally sent to just shoot cutaways of Reagan arriving and departing from the Hilton – shots that would take up a few minutes of tape at most -- he only had a 20-minute tape with him. "I kept thinking, 'God don't let this tape run out,'" he said.

It didn't. And as it turned out, Wilson ended up being somewhat more of an active agent in the whole event other than just a cameraman. In the footage above, as agents are tending to Brady, someone calls out, asking if anyone has a handkerchief. Wilson says the person was asking for handkerchiefs for Brady's wound. "I always get runny noses," said Wilson. "So I always carry around a big wad of Kleenex." So, as he rolled the camera, he was also trying to fish out Kleenex from his pocket for Brady.

Wilson said he heard later that everyone at the newsroom was watching ABC News, because their courier happened to bring back the tape to the bureau first, so they aired the first footage. "So, Ed Fouhy [Washington bureau chief at the time] started yelling at everyone to get on the phones" so they could retrieve the tape. "Of course, they were all fake dialing because there was no one to call," he said, chuckling. They just had to wait for the courier to arrive on the scene and bring back the tape.

Wilson met Reagan again about four years later, when this picture was taken.

(Charlie Wilson)
He was doing freelance work at the time that included a contract with the White House … and a picture with the president.