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, Rep. 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 United States, 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 Rev. 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, 150 miles 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 epitomize the ultimate power of a charismatic leader over his followers.

Tim Carter was spared to carry out one last mission for the temple. Almost 30 years after that horrible day, we spoke for the first time about one of the worst American tragedies of the last century.

“We are inextricably linked,” Carter said. “What you experienced at the airstrip is what I experienced at Jonestown. Somebody was trying to kill us. And my family was killed as well. I cannot describe the agony, terror and horror of what that was.”

Roots of movement

Peoples Temple sprang from the heartland in the 1950s. Jones built an interracial congregation in Indianapolis through passionate Pentecostal preaching and courageous calls for racial equality. Moving his flock to California, the minister transformed his church into a leftist social movement with programs for the poor.

Political work by his followers elevated Jones to prominence in liberal Democratic circles by the late 1970s. He was head of San Francisco’s public housing commission when media scrutiny and legal problems spurred his retreat to Jonestown for what would be his last stand.

In 1977, as news media were beginning to investigate disciplinary thrashings and other abuse in the temple.

And, now, 30 years later, dozens of survivingmembers come together for private reunions because they still value their friendship, the temple’s sense of community and their utopian dream of a world free of racism and injustice.

“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 the temple’s last day. “I’ve come to believe a group of people can see the same thing and each come away with a completely different perspective and all be right in the moment,” he said. “We had ideas of a greater mission, and now we have found a way to be together that is harmonious and healing and are better able to make a difference in the world.”

Today, he is the father of three daughters and is the vice president of a small Bay Area office installation and services 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, coexisted in 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.”

The unidentifiable or unclaimed bodies of more than 400 of Jonestown’s dead, most of them children, are interred in a mass grave at an Oakland Cemetery overlooking San Francisco Bay. Each year a memorial service is conducted on Nov. 18.

Eugene Smith, who lost his wife, their infant son and his mother, went to the grave site years ago but has not returned. Fate had put him in Georgetown the day they perished, but he likes to think he would have resisted the madness in Jonestown.

as he believes his wife did.

Now working as a research analyst for California’s transportation department, Smith has neither remarried nor fathered more children.

“None of us are survivors; we just got away,” he said. “For all of us who were not in Jonestown, part of us died there.”



EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Reiterman, San Francisco news editor for The Associated Press, covered Jonestown for the San Francisco Examiner. He is the author with the late John Jacobs of “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People,” published by Tarcher/Penguin.

AP-ES-11-14-08 0954EST


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