In the picture, the girl will always be nine years old and wailing “Too hot! Too hot!” as she runs down the road away from her burning Vietnamese village.
She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.
She will always be a victim without a name.
It only took a second for Associated Press (AP) photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years ago. It communicated the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in US history.
Yet beneath the photo lies a lesser-known story. It is the tale of a dying child brought together by chance with a young photographer. A moment captured in the chaos of war that would be both her savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan for her.
“I really wanted to escape from that little girl,” says Kim Phuc, now 49. “But it seems to me that the picture didn’t let me go.”
It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard the soldier’s scream: “We have to run out of this place! They will bomb here, and we will be dead!”
Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow and purple smoke bombs curling around the Cao Dai temple where her family had sheltered for three days, as North and South Vietnamese forces fought for control of their village.
The little girl heard a roar overhead and twisted her neck to look up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider plane grew fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping canisters like tumbling eggs flipping end over end.
The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions.
Fire danced up Phuc’s left arm. The threads of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing pain bit through skin and muscle.
“I will be ugly, and I’m not normal anymore,” she thought, as her right hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm. “People will see me in a different way.”
In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind her older brother. She did not see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran toward them, screaming.
Then, she lost consciousness.
Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital. There, he was told the child was too far gone to help, but he flashed his US press badge, demanded that doctors treat the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten.
“I cried when I saw her running,” said Ut, whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong Delta. “If I don’t help her — if something happened and she died — I think I’d kill myself after that.”
Back at the office in what was then US-backed Saigon, he developed his film. When the image of the naked little girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency’s strict policy against nudity.
However, veteran Vietnam photo editor Horst Faas took one look and knew it was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the photo’s news value far outweighed any other concerns, and he won.
A couple of days after the image shocked the world, another journalist found out the little girl had somehow survived the attack. Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent Television Network who had given Phuc water from his canteen and drizzled it down her burning back at the scene, fought to have her transferred to the US-run Barsky unit. It was the only facility in Saigon equipped to deal with her severe injuries.