Dark clouds tumbled overhead on that afternoon 30 years ago, in the last hours of the congressman’s mission deep in the jungle of Guyana.
With a small entourage, US Representative Leo Ryan had come to investigate the remote agricultural 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 US, they said fearfully.
Suddenly a powerful wind tore through the central pavilion, riffling pages of my notebook, and the skies dumped torrents that bowed plantain fronds. People scrambled for cover as I interviewed the founder of Peoples Temple.
“I feel sorry that we are being destroyed from within,” intoned the Reverend Jim Jones, stunned that members of his flock wanted to abandon the place he called the Promised Land.
That freakish storm and the mood seemed ominous — and not just to me.
“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 unleashed a fusillade that killed Ryan — the first congressman slain in the line of duty — and four others, including three newsmen.
By their wiles or happenstance, scores of temple members escaped the events of Nov. 18, 1978. Among the survivors: Members of the group’s basketball team who were playing in Georgetown, 190km away; a woman who escaped Jonestown with her young son, hours before the carnage; a family that had left Peoples Temple months before.
Some of the survivors would commit suicide, die at the hands of others or fall victim to drugs. But many more moved on to new careers, spouses and even churches.
With the passage of time, differences between temple outsiders and insiders, temple defectors and loyalists have faded. They share painful memories, guilt-filled feelings, loss of loved ones and psychological scars from an event that has come to symbolize the ultimate power of a charismatic leader over his followers.
The preacher, who once charmed US politicians and met with future first lady Rosalynn Carter, had turned into a pill-popping dictator who sadistically presided over harsh discipline.
“I felt like I was in a concentration camp and he was Hitler,” Williams said.
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