This article is based on an interview with one of our local aviation stalwarts, Captain Astill Paul, who reminisces on his 30-year stint (1971 – 2001) as a pilot with the former Guyana Airways Corporation (GAC). Captain Paul recalled having a close shave with death flying a jet from Trinidad to Guyana, when he and his co-pilot couldn’t be sure whether the landing wheels were down or whether they were secure. His closest call, however, occurred on the ground on November 18, 1978, when he landed a Twin Otter at an airstrip at Port Kaituma, Region One (Barima/Waini) to pick up and bring out American Congressman, Leo Ryan, who had gone into Jonestown for a meeting with the now-infamous Jim Jones.
According to Captain Paul, he had a ringside view of “the whole parade” at Kaituma airstrip, where five persons, including Congressman Ryan, were shot to death, and several others were seriously wounded.
He explained that Ryan had come to Guyana to investigate complaints about members of Peoples Temple being held at Jonestown against their will, and he had been transported to Jonestown the day before, overnighting at Jonestown. Paul and Chief Pilot Guy Spence’s assignment was to bring out Congressman Ryan from Jonestown to Georgetown that Saturday afternoon.
He recalled: “I was going up for promotion to Captain, so I was taking the Twin Otter in with the Chief Pilot, who was Captain Guy Spence. I was on the left seat. When we were coming out, we would have exchanged seats, because he would have done the flight out.
“It was around 5pm [and] as I was about to land, I saw a red truck parked like halfway down the strip, parked in the middle of the strip.
“I remember Captain Spence saying to me: ‘Do you think you have enough space to land? Because, no sense telling them to move; they ent moving!’
“But the Twin Otter has a Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) capability, so I was able to land without problems. Apart from some people in the tray of the truck, the airstrip looked somewhat deserted. There was nobody else around. At the other end of the airstrip, there was a Cessna, whose pilot was waiting for any overspill from the people who would be travelling out from Jonestown to Georgetown. The pilot was Tommy.”
Captain Spence was inside the Twin Otter, but Paul exited the plane and stood outside. He said that as he waited for the passengers, he saw a tractor towing a trailer with some people in it come onto the airstrip from the top end and park. Then a Land Rover appeared and drove up to where Paul was standing near the Twin Otter.
It stopped, and a number of people, including Congressman Ryan, disembarked. The group included Ryan’s secretary, Jackie Speier, and some television and still photographers.
Paul walked up to them and told them that they would have to hurry and get on board, so the aircraft could leave before dark. As he was talking with those people, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that the tractor and trailer were coming towards him and the group.
Paul said: “I heard a sound, like if you take little stones and pelt them on zinc, that was the sound I was hearing. Now, up to that time, I thought the people in the trailer were protesting something. So I am now walking to the front of the aircraft, and I am telling one of the two guys who had cameras, ‘Look! We have to go!’
“Next thing I know, the fellow was on the ground; and as I moved my attention back to them again, the other one was on the ground as well.
“They were shot! This was shocking! I started to run, and as I was running, I heard a voice saying, ‘Lie down! Lie down!’ It was an elderly man in a house telling me to lie down. So I turned around and lay down with the men who had been shot.
“The bullets are flying all around, and I am saying, ‘But this doesn’t make sense. I prefer to run and let them shoot me in the back.’ That was my thought at the time. So I got up and start to run again, away from the gunmen.”
As he ran, Paul said, he saw the people in the tray of the red truck, and thought for a moment they might be of help. But he quickly realized that they could not be bothered with his plight. They were all firmly and silently gazing at the slaughter taking place.
He eventually found a dugout at the end of the airstrip, into which he jumped, and from which vantage point he was able to turn his attention to what was playing out at the airstrip.
“From the dugout, I was able to see the whole parade. They had a man in a red bandanna in the tray of the trailer being pulled by the tractor. The tractor and trailer did a complete circle around the plane. The tractor did not stop. The men in the trailer shot Congressman Ryan and the other people who were standing near the aircraft waiting to board.
“Then they made a circle and came back. The man with the red bandanna had a pistol now, and he was firing into the people lying on the ground at point blank range, making sure that everybody is dead. So if I was still lying down there, I woulda dead! Up to now, I tell myself I did the right thing [when] I get up and run.”
He was later joined in the dugout in which he sought refuge by a rather strange youngster. “This guy was weird. Every time he heard a gunshot ring out, he would jump up and shout, ‘Yaay! ‘Yaay! Another one gone!’ I gave this guy a clout in his head, and said to him, ‘You better get you ***** down!’
“It was the first bad word I had used that day. Here I was, trying to be as invisible as possible, and this guy was behaving in a manner which could put both of us in danger.”
After a while, the shooting died down, the shooters moved away, and Paul emerged from the dugout.
There were bodies lying around the Twin Otter. Inside the plane was the body of a woman whose head had been blasted apart. The same bullet that had killed her had exited the plane on the other side and damaged the fuel control mechanism, thereby rendering the Twin Otter inoperable.
“Where was Captain Spence? He was in the aircraft all the time. He was lying down in the aisle. He didn’t come out. He couldn’t come out at all.”
Captain Spence was unhurt.
Fortunately, the Cessna which had been parked at the top end of the airstrip had not been damaged, and it was this aircraft that brought him and Captain Spence out to Georgetown at the direct order of then-Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.
But that was not the end of that horrendous evening. He explained as follows: “What also hit me from Jonestown was that, after the shooting episode and so on, [there] was something that happened on the Cessna before we landed at Timehri. For me, the Jonestown shooting, the running is nothing compared to what happened on that Cessna. It was myself, Captain Spence and our Flight Attendant, named Glasgow, and an injured woman named Monica Bagby. The woman had gotten three bullets in her back. I was tending to her. I remember I had paid somebody with a green five-dollar note for two bottles of rum, since after the shooting there was no Medex. So I got two bottles of rum, because that got spirits inside. I applied the alcohol to this woman’s injuries. The injuries were severe. She was swelling like dough. So we took off. Tommy, the pilot, was obviously shaken. I said, ‘Captain Spence, why don’t you fly?’ He said, ‘I don’t have a license for this aircraft.’ I said, ‘But this [is] a plane like any other.’ He however refused to fly, so we are on our way to Timehri. We were about 3000 feet up. It was getting a little dark. I looked out through the window. I am seeing Hog Island, Wakenaam, Leguan, so I know that where we are, we will be at Parika soon.
“We got to Parika. I am looking down. This stretch had yellow lights, and there is a straight stretch, that is, the West Bank road. Tommy started descending. I said, ‘Tommy, where are you going?’ He said, ‘I am going to Timehri.’ I said, ‘That is not the airport.’ He said, ‘Look the airport!’ I said, ‘Tommy, that is not the airport. We just passed Parika; that is the East Bank Highway.’ He said, ‘What is the matter with you? I am in command.’ We now down to 1200 feet. Captain Spence said: ‘Oh shit, Tommy, Astill is right! That is not the airport!’ and Tommy pull the Cessna back up, and we landed at Timehri at 2am. Prime Minister Burnham sent a ‘chopper’ for us.’
To have escaped the bullets and the slaughter at the airstrip at Port Kaituma only to die in an aircraft crash two hours later would have been a supreme irony, Paul said.
His memories of that night flight are more vivid than the memories of his sprint away from the bullets of the Peoples Temple killers.
In retrospect, he says, he realises that the plan of the followers of Jim Jones had been to shoot down the Twin Otter on its takeoff with Ryan and the others.
“The aircraft would have come down in the river. It would have looked as if it was an accident. Ryan woulda dead, everybody woulda dead, I woulda dead, and Jonestown would have gone on without hindrance.”
The plan, however, went awry when one of Jones’ followers acted impulsively in seizing a firearm from the Congressman’s security detail and started shooting the members of the visiting team. “After that, I think they decided, ‘Well, we might as well end everything right here’.”
The full horror of Jonestown dawned on Paul two days after Saturday, November 18, 1978.
“The rumours came out about the mass suicide. So I and Captain Marshall were ordered to do an air reconnaissance over the community. We were in an AVRO aircraft. We were over an area where the coordinates told us that we were above Jonestown, but I could see no signs of life or activity. Now, years ago, when they had what we used to call Public Works Department (PWD), there was a dump at Onderneeming where they dumped vehicles which were scrapped. They used to put them in a big heap, so when you flying over there, you would see the different colours — white Land Rovers, red tractors, yellow grader, etc., etc. This is what Jonestown looked like at that height. It looked like all the colours of a vehicle dump. But when we get down a little bit lower, then I say, ‘Wait boy! This is people there! There are mounds of bodies lying there, hug up tight.’”
(This article is adapted from its original in The Guyana Chronicle on March 2, 2013.)