Eight Shots Fired
The Ambassador Hotel
By Bill Eppridge
(Copyright © 2008 Bill Eppridge)
On Election Day there was no campaigning to be done. The senator had gone out to visit with friends at the beach, and we didn't bug him about going. We knew he needed a day off. By this time, he was beaten up by the campaign and he looked it.
I called Dick Pollard at Life just to check in and see what they wanted me to do because the magazine was on deadline at this point, and I had to formulate a plan to get the film to New York City.
Pollard said, "This bunch of Republicans here have come to believe that if Bobby wins California he will be the next president. We are convinced of it. Nixon could never touch him in an election. We want you to stick as closely as possible to him tonight. Just stay with him."
That evening, Jimmy Wilson, the CBS cameraman who lived almost next door to the senator in Virginia, told me that he was quitting because CBS felt he was getting too close to the candidate, and he was not objective anymore. They were going to move him to somebody else's campaign.
Wilson said, "I want to do the same thing that you do. I want to be as close as possible." I said, "Well, let's ask him together." Bobby called Bill Barry over and told him, "These guys are sticking right with you tonight. They are in my immediate party."
We felt this would be the most politically significant night of the campaign. He had already won South Dakota and a California victory would send his campaign into orbit.
That night, wherever the senator went, we were right in front of him in our usual wedge position. The primary election looked like a sure thing for Kennedy around 10:30 p.m. Then it was time to go face the mobs, and accept victory. The senator, a small group of friends, Jimmy, his crew and I all went down a back elevator through the kitchen, where Kennedy shook hands with a cook before going out into the ballroom.
As the senator neared the end of his speech, and with a nod from Bill Barry, Jimmy and I headed off the stage toward a different exit. It was customary to never exit from the same place that you had entered, for security reasons. Never retrace your path.
We formed a wedge to get the senator out of the ballroom. Bill Barry had set the direction, toward a side door away from the kitchen, and said, "This way, senator," pointing toward an exit across the ballroom. Kennedy replied, "No, Bill, I'm going that way," and he pointed toward the kitchen. Barry reiterated firmly but Bobby said, "No, Bill," turned to his right, and walked quickly into the kitchen entrance. This was the same entrance he had just come from. We quickly reversed our direction, but by then others had gotten between the senator and his wedge.
This left us behind him, unable to protect him from the crowd which surged in front of us almost immediately. He was about 12 feet ahead going through the swinging doors when I heard what sounded like firecrackers.
The sound I will never forget was bang, bang, and then bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. It was clearly eight shots. There were people going down in front of me. My camera accidentally went off. I kept shoving Jimmy forward into the darkness of the kitchen.
We found the senator—fallen—bleeding—being held by a hotel busboy who was the last to shake his hand. Bobby's eyes were open and he was trying to speak. He was clenching and unclenching his right fist. In the corner, I could see Bill Barry, Rafer Johnson, Rosey Grier and George Plimpton all piled up on somebody – I assumed the gunman. Rosey was yelling, "Don't kill him. Don't kill him."
I could see the senator's face clearly, and the busboy Juan Romero holding his head. Right about then instinct took over. I remembered saying to myself as soon as I saw the senator on the floor, "OK, you've had 10 years' training for a moment like this…now go to work." Time slowed almost to a standstill. It was as though nobody else was in the room but the senator, the busboy, and myself.
Those 21 minutes in that kitchen seemed like an eternity, but I had shot less than two rolls of film.
Outside Good Samaritan Hospital, where Bobby had been moved after being taken first to another L.A. hospital, the street was solid with people, mainly press. I ran into a Time reporter and gave him the film to take back to the L.A. bureau of Life, then went back to the hotel to retrieve my camera bag from the suite. It was now almost dawn.
I was outside Good Samaritan when Frank Mankiewicz came out to tell the waiting press that the senator had died. I stayed at the hospital for as long as I could. It was at this point that I saw Julian Wasser, another photographer from Time. He told me that my film had gotten into the Life office, and that he had seen the contact sheets. He said, "I don't know what else you've got, but you do have one hell of a picture."