It was hot.
We had been standing in the Embassy Room in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel for hours waiting for Bobby to appear. I was luckier than most. As a reporter for a local wire service that had an audio subsidiary, I had a tape recorder so I could record Robert F. Kennedy as he announced victory in the June 4, 1968, primary election. I was on the stage, along with assorted other broadcast media including a local radio newsman named Andy West and national broadcast correspondent Steve Bell. The three of us chatted for what seemed like hours as we hunkered down on the stage. There was what seemed like hundreds of people in that little reception room that was illuminated by very hot television lights. They were jammed together so tight that if someone fainted, he or she could not fall down. It would have been impossible.
And finally he came. It was just after midnight on June 5, 1968. With his wife, Ethel, at his side, he declared victory and said it was “on to Chicago” and the Democratic National Convention. He had the momentum and may have been the Democratic presidential nominee that summer…and in November the next president of the United States.
All of us on that little stage gathered around Bobby as the screaming, yelling, laughing, happy crowd of supporters surged forward. No one wanted the potential president to be crushed and injured. Being almost 6’ tall, I was part of the ring of people around the candidate. Jesse Unruh, California’s Assembly speaker and chairman of Kennedy’s California campaign, grabbed one of my hands and Rosey Grier, the football star-turned-minister, grabbed the other as we joined the ring of protection.
There was a door directly behind the small stage that led into the hotel kitchen. Kennedy was whisked away through that door and I headed to little bank of pay telephones on the wall to the right of the stage. We didn’t have cell phones then. I got to the phones – there were only three or four – when people started screaming and I heard what sounded like balloons popping. I dialed my office. I said, “This is Sandi. Something is happening….” Click. I was put on hold. Not even a word from the guy on the desk.
Fortunately, we had a second news operation at the Registrar of Voters headquarters. I got a live person when I called, grabbed the arm of a hysterical, crying woman and said, “Please talk to the nice man on the other end and don’t give this phone to anyone.” She did, I found out what happened and dictated to the “nice man on the other end.” To my surprise, little insignificant City News Service had the first bulletin out on the assassination. Of course, NBC showed it live on television, so we didn’t really have it first – just the first wire bulletin.
Kennedy was first taken to Central Receiving Hospital (closed many years ago). I suppose you’d now call it a trauma center – Central Receiving was where they took Los Angeles police offices wounded in the line of duty. After emergency treatment at Central Receiving, he was then taken to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan.
I spent the night sitting on the hood of a police patrol car in front of Good Sam, watching along with other reporters the parade of family members who went into the hospital. Every once in a while, I’d find a pay phone and dictate an update. A room was opened in the hospital for the press around 8 a.m. My office sent me home to get some sleep. In what seemed like minutes after drifting off into a deep sleep, the phone rang. Kennedy was dead and his body was being flown home. I was to go to LAX to cover it.
I did. And at a hastily constructed row of pay phones, I dictated the goodbye story as the plane roared over my head, then banked and turned east. Tears were running down my face. It was the first time that I had cried covering a news story.
Note: Sandi Gibbons is public information officer for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.