At 6:00 pm local time on November 18, 1978, Guyana Prime Minister Forbes Burnham summoned American Ambassador John Burke to his office to inform him of a report of an “incident” at the small jungle airstrip at Port Kaituma in the Northwest District.
Ninety minutes later, at 7:30 pm, the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown cabled the news to the State Department in Washington, adding details coming in “as this is being dictated” of unconfirmed reports that as many as nine or ten people had been shot to death. “This group includes Congressman Ryan.”
The report was filled with errors made in the confusion of the moment:
• There were nine defectors coming out with Ryan (actually, there were 16 people from Jonestown);
• Five people were shot to death, rather than nine, although numerous others had been seriously wounded, and could have been perceived as dead;
• The gunmen, rather than being “a truckload of white civilians,” were soon identified as young men of both races.
These were only the first of the hundreds of errors reported in subsequent cables, many of which eventually made it into the larger, permanent narrative of Jonestown.
But the most important information of the moment was accurate: Leo Ryan was dead.
Cable, Z 182330Z NOV 78/ FM AMEMBASSY GEORGETOWN 3774/ TO SECSTATE WASHDC FLASH 8061.