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In the moments leading up to the speech, the Pope was reaching out to the crowd. He swept babies into his brawny grasp and kissed them, touched outstretched hands, extended his arms in blessing. At 5:19, the Popemobile had nearly completed its second and final circuit of the square. John Paul had picked up and held high a little girl, her blond hair tousled as he hugged her. After he put her down, recalls Pietro Volpicelli, an onlooker who was standing only 10 ft. away, the Pope was leaning out of his car and "giving his hand to a girl dressed in white."
The shots rang out.
Three, perhaps four or more; no one could be positive. But the crowd knew instantly what had happened. Witness after witness was to liken the noise to the "popping of a string of firecrackers," a description made so familiar by assassinations and attempted assassinations that it is now repeated instinctively. A woman who had been standing near the Pope told a reporter confidently: "It was a Browning 9." She had heard the sound of shots many times in her native Northern Ireland, to whose warring factions the Pope in September 1979 had made an impassioned but vain plea, "on my knees," for an end to violence.*
The Pope stood immobile for an instant. Then he collapsed backward into the arms of his personal secretary, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz. The Pope looked at his hands, one of which was bloodied. Bright red blood began to spurt from his abdomen onto his gleaming white cassock. Francesco Passanisi, inspector general of the Vatican police, who had been following close behind the campagnola, leaped aboard and ordered the driver to "move back and forth," presenting a blurred target for any further shots. Recalled Passanisi later: "As I was supporting the Pope, he was saying 'Thank you, thank you.' And he repeated that I should not worry."
After a few seconds of evasive action, when it became clear there would be no more shots, the Popemobile moved off as rapidly as its small engine could drive it through the Arch of Bells to an ambulance that is always parked near papal appearances. Attendants followed standing emergency orders: to take the Pope not to Holy Spirit Hospital, one of the largest in Rome, which is just around the corner from the Vatican, but to the Gemelli hospital, on the outskirts of the city, a little more than two miles away. Reason: Gemelli, a Catholic hospital supervised by a board of bishops, is reputed to be Rome's best medical facility, with the most modern equipment and highly skilled doctors.
On the 20-min. drive to Gemelli, John Paul, bleeding profusely,