A father who had known Rev. Jim Jones since the early days of Peoples Temple in Indiana said that as soon as he approached the Jonestown settlement in Guyana, he wanted to escape.
“We got to that front gate, I seen those armed guards,” he said. “That’s when my heart fell. I knew then, I didn’t have to wait until I got into Jonestown, I knew then I had made the biggest mistake of my life.”
His daughter, not yet in her teens, said, “They were just standing around with guns. And that’s when I knew, ‘Oh my God, we’re in trouble.’” She went on, “I knew in the first month there, I’m stuck here and I’m most likely going to die here.”
On that Saturday morning, Nov. 18th, there were roughly 940 members of Peoples Temple in Guyana. When that night had ended, some 32 were still alive.
I’m a senior documentary producer at CNN, but 30 years ago, I was an NBC correspondent who had worked alongside the late Don Harris, and I helped cover a portion of the story after he, Congressman Leo Ryan, and three others were gunned down in the airport ambush that became the prelude to all the other deaths at Jim Jones’ instigation.
This spring, I had just finished a two-hour documentary at CNN looking back on the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when my boss walked up to me to say he wanted me to do something similar about Jonestown for this fall. I tried to refuse. To me, it was an ugly story with very little new to be said, and an artificial anniversary date was hardly an excuse to resurrect what took place that day.
I watched Stanley Nelson’s PBS documentary and thought nothing could be done better than that—this story already has been re-told, very well indeed. Then a question crossed my mind: what about the survivors, those who actually got out of Jonestown that very day? For most of them, it must have taken unfathomable courage born of sheer desperation.
I began to look for those who made it out, to try to tell their story, both then and also now, what life has brought them in their three extra decades. Understandably, a number I approached were reluctant to revisit the day’s horror. I think I would have felt the same way. But we did talk on-camera with five, and the stories we heard are remarkable.
“First off, I thought, ‘Okay, this is the day that I’m gonna die,’” said that young girl. “I remember going to the kitchen and grabbing a butcher knife and sticking it down in the front of my pants,” said one of three women who began walking that morning to a railroad town almost 40 miles away.
When one of the departing family members was killed in the fusillade at the airstrip, the father told the children to run and hide in the jungle. They went too far. As night approached, adults searched and failed. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, don’t tell me they’re lost,’” the father said.
They were, for two nights and three days. When they emerged—two wounded in the airport gunfire, the youngest feverish, another girl almost in shock—they found themselves back at the edge of the airstrip. Somebody sent for the girl’s brother. “He come running up, and I’ll never forget the look on his face,” she said. “It was like he had seen a ghost.”
It took years for the nightmare to subside. Everyone we met today is doing well, but only after time. One is a policeman—after a decade-long struggle with drugs and alcohol. Another, a grandmother, works in health care and is a licensed real estate agent—but along the way, went to jail briefly while on crack cocaine. One man told me he did not kick his heroin habit until a counselor finally pointed out he relapsed at the same time each year. Each one, though, has become a personal success story, against considerable odds.
Put them all together in a village today in small-town America, and to the outsider’s eye, there would be little different about these people who, on the most desperate day of all, dared to live.
Yet the oldest we met, and probably the wisest, put it this way: “Whoever said time heals all wounds didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. It doesn’t.”
CNN’s documentary, Escape from Jonestown, is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. both Eastern and Pacific time on Thursday evening, November 13th. It will re-run in prime time again on Saturday and Sunday nights, Nov. 15 and 16.
(Jim Polk can be reached at James.Polk@turner.com.)