Dark clouds tumbled overhead on that afternoon 30 years ago, in the last hours of the congressman's mission in Guyana.
With a small entourage, Rep. Leo Ryan had come to investigate the remote settlement built by a California-based church. But while he was there, more than a dozen people had stepped forward: We want to return to the U.S., they said.
Suddenly a powerful wind tore through the central pavilion, riffling pages of my notebook, and the skies dumped torrents. People scrambled for cover as I interviewed the founder of Peoples Temple.
“I feel sorry that we are being destroyed from within,” said the Rev. Jim Jones, stunned that members of his flock wanted to abandon the place he called the Promised Land.
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That freakish storm and the mood seemed ominous. “I felt evil itself blow into Jonestown when that storm hit,” recalls Tim Carter, one of the few settlers to survive that day.
Within hours, Carter would see his wife and son die of cyanide poisoning, two of the more than 900 people Jones led in a murder and suicide ritual of epic proportions.
And I would be wounded when a team of temple assassins killed Ryan and four others.
But by their wiles or happenstance, scores of temple members escaped the events of Nov. 18, 1978. They are, as they were before joining the temple, mostly ordinary people who wanted to help their fellow man and be part of something larger than themselves. They have experiences in common and share painful memories from a tragedy that has come to epitomize the power of a charismatic leader over his followers.
Almost 30 years after that horrible day, Carter and I spoke for the first time.
“What you experienced at the airstrip,” he said, “is what I experienced at Jonestown. … I cannot describe the agony, terror and horror of what that was.”
The path to Guyana
Jones built an interracial congregation in Indianapolis in the 1950s. Moving his flock to California, he transformed his church into a social movement with programs for the poor. He was head of San Francisco's public housing commission when media scrutiny and legal problems spurred his retreat to Jonestown.
Yulanda Williams was about 12 when she began attending temple services in San Francisco with her parents. Years later, in 1977, as media were beginning to investigate abuse in the temple, Jones summoned her and her husband to Guyana.
Upon arrival in Jonestown, the couple felt deceived. It was far from the paradise Jones described. People were packed into metal-roofed cabins and sleeping on bunks without mattresses. There were armed guards, and Jones had turned into a pill-popping dictator who presided over harsh discipline.
On the morning of Nov. 18, Ryan's party was to tour the camp, and investigate whether its inhabitants truly were free to go. A number of settlers asked him to take them back to the U.S.
While a temple dump truck ferried Ryan's party, including me and other journalists, and 15 grim-faced defectors toward an airstrip six miles away, we were unaware that just hours earlier nine people had secretly left Jonestown.
We made it safely to the dirt strip. But then, a tractor with a trailer full of temple gunmen looking for the escapees bore down on us. Gunfire exploded as we boarded two small planes.
Ryan died. So did defector Patricia Parks, NBC newsmen Don Harris and Bob Brown, and photographer Greg Robinson, my colleague at the San Francisco Examiner.
I was shot in the left forearm and wrist.
Some survivors fled into the jungle, but most took refuge in a cramped rum shop, fearful the assassins would return. “You're gonna see the worst carnage of your life at Jonestown,” predicted one of the defectors the next morning. “It's called ‘revolutionary suicide.'”
By the time the airstrip gunmen returned to Jonestown, Jones had gathered his people in the pavilion. He used news of Ryan's shooting to convince the throng that they had no hope, no future, no place to go.
“The congressman has been murdered!” he said. “Please get the medication before it's too late. … Don't be afraid to die.”
When potassium cyanide-laced Grape Flavor Aid was brought forward, Jones wanted the children to go first, sealing everyone's fate because the parents and elders would have no reason to live. With armed guards encircling everyone, medical staff members with syringes squirted poison down the throats of babies.
The killing already was under way when Carter was sent to the pavilion. Frozen in horror, he saw his own 15-month-old son, Malcolm, poisoned. Then his wife, Gloria, died in his arms. “I wanted to kill myself,” he said. “But I had a voice saying, ‘You cannot die. You must live.'”
He did live. Jones had one last mission for him.
A top Jones aide gave Carter, his brother and another temple member pistols and luggage containing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were told to take the money to the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown, along with letters authorizing the transfer of millions from temple bank accounts to that government.
But the trio ditched most of the cash during the hike and were detained by police in Port Kaituma.
In the aftermath, Carter went to live with his father in Idaho. He landed a job at a travel agency and worked in the industry for many years. He is the father of three children. Each day, he reflects on the nightmare of Jonestown.
“The more time that goes on, the better it is,” he said. “I can think about Gloria and Malcolm without feeling that knife in my chest.”
‘A great need to forgive'
Thirty years later, dozens of survivors gather at private reunions. “I go because I feel so strongly about the need for and power of forgiveness and understanding,” said Stephan Jones, the minister's son. He was 19, and in Georgetown with other basketball team members on Nov. 18.
Today, he is the father of three daughters and is the vice president of a small Bay Area company.
In Jonestown's aftermath, Stephan hated his father. But he has come to recognize that the capacity for good and evil, and mental sickness, co-existed in Jim Jones.
“We don't want to face our own responsibility or part in what happened and feel ashamed for being duped or manipulated,” he said. “We look for someone else to blame. I realized over time that there was a great need to forgive him, then I could forgive myself.”