Congresswoman remembers day of horror
San Francisco Chronicle
By Congresswoman Jackie Speier
View the original piece here
"I'm 28 years old, and I am about to die."
I was curled up behind the wheel of an airplane on a jungle airstrip in Guyana, South America. This isn't what I expected when I signed on to work for a United States congressman. Our fact-finding trip to investigate the Peoples Temple in Jonestown had gone horribly wrong. I lay as still as I could, pretending to be dead, as an unknown gunman pumped five bullets into me at close range. Pop-pop. Pop. Pop-pop.
When the shooting stopped, I looked around and saw bodies, including that of my boss and mentor, Congressman Leo Ryan. Was he, too, pretending to be dead? I called his name, but he didn't respond. Looking down, I saw what appeared to be a bone. It was my own, and it was sticking out of my shattered right arm.
The thought raced through my mind: "I'm 28 years old, and I am about to die. This isn't how it's supposed to happen. I will never turn 80, never marry, never have children."
I said the Act of Contrition, the prayer Roman Catholics recite during confession, and waited for the lights to go out. I saw my grandmother's face and cried at the thought that she would have to go to my funeral.
A start in politics
My family wasn't particularly political. Mom and Dad voted, but that was the extent of their involvement. In fact, I ended up going to UC Davis because, to them, Berkeley was too radical.
The sisters at Burlingame's Mercy High School encouraged all of us to take an active role in our communities. I volunteered for the campaign of my state assemblyman, Leo Ryan, who seemed unlike other politicians. He was provocative; he didn't mince words or beat around the bush; he told you what was on his mind whether you wanted to hear it or not; and he took pride in not being able to be pigeonholed into any one ideology. For instance, he was a public school teacher, but supported education vouchers, opposed by teachers unions as a threat to public schools.
As a student at Davis, I interned in his Sacramento office. Leo (as he insisted we call him) said I could learn far more with first-hand experience than in my political science courses, which was exactly how he approached his job. He went to Watts after the 1965 riots to work as a substitute high school teacher and five years later, had himself booked into Folsom Prison to study conditions there.
By the time I graduated, Leo Ryan had moved on to Congress. He gave me an entry-level job in his Capitol office. The next year, he supported my decision to return home for law school. After I passed the bar in 1976, he offered me a position as his legislative counsel.
In March 1978, he and another congressman joined a Greenpeace mission to Newfoundland to document the slaughter of baby harp seals. I accompanied the delegation and, while witnessing hunters brutally club shrieking days-old seals, thought I would surely never see anything that violent again.
Eight months later, we were under fire in Jonestown.
Coerced by a demagogue
Constituents from our San Mateo County district had written the congressman about their daughters and sons who had joined Jim Jones' Peoples Temple and been coerced to accompany the charismatic demagogue to Guyana.
The State Department assured Congressman Ryan that the politically well-connected Jones was a decent man and his Peoples Temple compound was safe and open. But Leo wanted more information, so he asked a member of our staff to interview defectors. After listening to the tapes of those interviews, I had an ominous feeling. One ex-adherent spoke about rehearsing mass suicides in an exercise Jones called "The White Night." I informed Congressman Ryan, and he decided to go see for himself.
I had just placed a down payment on a condominium in Arlington, Va. Even though we had been reassured that our trip was perfectly safe, I asked the Realtor to add a condition making the transaction contingent on my return.
We left Washington with no protection other than the perceived shield of invincibility that came with Leo Ryan being a member of Congress. Every congressional delegation since is forbidden to travel without a military escort.
'We're all very happy'
Upon arriving in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, we were told that Jones would not allow us to visit. For three days, our delegation, including relatives of Temple followers and a press contingent, waited while Congressman Ryan, myself, U.S. Embassy official Richard Dwyer and Jim Schollart from the House Foreign Affairs Committee negotiated with Jones' representatives. Eventually, we were given permission to land at Port Kaituma, with no guarantee that we would be permitted to go any further.
On Nov. 17, we landed at Port Kaituma's airstrip. After a brief negotiation in which Congressman Ryan made it clear that he wasn't going to be deterred, our party was loaded onto a dump truck for the 7-mile trip through the jungle to Jonestown.
That evening, we were entertained by members of the compound and spoke to the Temple members whose families had contacted our office. To a person, they swore they were happy and had no desire to leave. Larry Layton, one of Jones' closest assistants, stepped in and said, "We're all very happy here. You see the beauty of this special place."
Don Harris, an NBC news correspondent, walked off to smoke a cigarette. He was approached by two people who slipped him notes saying that we were not seeing the real Peoples Temple. They were being held against their will and wanted to leave. Word spread, and more and more members came to us seeking protection and a way out of their tropical nightmare.
The next afternoon, after a torrential downpour turned the compound to a sticky, muddy swamp, the number of defectors had swelled to more than 40. We called for a third airplane and Congressman Ryan said he'd stay behind while I climbed back into the dump truck with the first group. I was surprised to see Larry Layton among the defectors and insisted that he be searched. Not having any professional security, a journalist patted Layton down, but missed the handgun hidden under his poncho.
Before the truck left, Leo Ryan returned, his shirt torn and bloodied. He had been attacked by a man with a knife while waiting with the other defectors. The situation had grown increasingly tense, and it was decided that we would all go to the airstrip together.
At Port Kaituma, we hurriedly loaded passengers onto two waiting planes. I heard screams and the unfamiliar sound of gunshots as, inside one of the aircraft, Layton opened fire. Within seconds, gunmen leaped from a nearby tractor and leveled their weapons at us. I dived to the ground behind an airplane wheel and pretended to be dead. The next thing I knew, I felt a crushing blow, as if someone had backed over me with a truck. It wasn't a truck, but the first of five bullets, tearing through my flesh.
I was afraid to move for quite some time after the silence resumed. Slowly, I looked around. Bodies lay crumpled on the tarmac. The wounded moved slowly, assessing their injuries. Congressman Ryan, three members of the media, and one of the defectors were dead. I dragged myself to an open airplane door and tried to crawl inside, but the plane's engine had been disabled, so it wasn't going to aid my escape. Some men gingerly laid me on the ground, not noticing that they had placed me on an anthill. I borrowed a reporter's tape recorder and began taping a final message to my family.
For 22 hours I lay, wounded on the muddy tarmac, altering between varying levels of consciousness. Some of the survivors found a nearby bar and brought me Guyanese rum to help dull the pain. At some point, word got to us that Jim Jones had ordered the "White Night," although we had no way of knowing how many of his followers had obeyed his madness.
A Guyanese military plane touched down the next day. I felt my prayers were answered, and I would finally receive medical attention. But the medic had only two aspirin. I remember telling him to just give me one, in case I needed the other later. Real aid wasn't administered until we landed at Georgetown, and I was transferred to a waiting U.S. military medevac plane.
Loss and recovery
I was flown to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington. For the next two months, I underwent more than 10 procedures as surgeons tried to save my right leg and arm. At one point, I was told the leg would likely be amputated and I would never use the arm again. Fortunately, the excellent doctors and nurses who cared for me made sure that neither scenario came to pass.
When I returned to the Bay Area, I was not allowed to stay in my home because of death threats. As painful as my injuries were, as much as I cringed looking at my scarred and tattered body, nothing was as debilitating as living in fear. I refused to spend the rest of my life as a victim and was desperate for an opportunity to stand on my own two feet again. I decided to file for the special election to fill Congressman Ryan's now-vacant seat. It was my way of saying that I was done being a victim.
I lost that race, but was elected the next year to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Six years later, I won a seat in the state Assembly - the same seat Leo Ryan held when I first met him. I felt that life was beginning to return to normal and was able to lock away my Jonestown experience by convincing myself that tragedies happen to everybody. Because my tragedy was especially bad, I would probably be spared another one.
I fell in love with an emergency room surgeon. We married, had a son and tried for another child. After repeated miscarriages and fertility treatments, we were told it was unlikely to happen. But I'd learned that in life, you never take anything for granted. I got pregnant, naturally, at the age of 43. Then, three months into what was deemed a "high-risk" pregnancy, my husband was killed in a car accident on his way to work.
The loss of my husband was more traumatic than anything that had ever happened to me. I didn't want to get out of bed. But I had no choice. I was now the single mother of two children, one yet unborn. Because my late husband had no life insurance, I was financially devastated, too. I had to sell everything, including my home.
I only tell this story because I don't know how I would have coped with this had it not been for my experience, 16 years earlier, on that dreadful airstrip in Guyana.
In April 2008, I was elected to Congressman Ryan's old seat in the House of Representatives. Jonestown is no longer the first thing on my mind, but I would be lying if I said I don't think of it often. A car backfiring or the sound of fireworks or a violent scene in a movie hits me much like the truck I thought ran over me while lying on that tarmac. The past few months, while news organizations have prepared their coverage for the 30th anniversary of Jonestown, I have been asked numerous times to recall the ordeal. It's never easy, but talking about it has helped me put it in perspective. And as bad as some of the memories are, they are always eclipsed by one fond one: that of Congressman Leo J. Ryan.
Recently, the term "maverick" has been overused, but to me, Leo Ryan was the real deal. He carried around with him a righteous indignation and passion for the powerless of society and didn't shy away from questioning the status quo.
Leo Ryan is often the forgotten element of the Jonestown story. Not only is he the only member of Congress ever to be assassinated in the line of duty, more important, he was the only congressperson that thousands of Americans, from his district or not, knew they could trust when no one else would listen. He didn't win all his battles, but to Leo, the fight was as important as the outcome. There is a quote from Winston Churchill that reminds me of Leo Ryan: "Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."
If there's anything I want others to take from my ordeal it is this: When life leaves us alone on that tarmac - whether it be the devastating loss of a loved one, shattering of a lifelong dream, loss of a job, or painful personal injury - we can always learn to walk again.
In my life, anyway, losing is just the first step toward future success.