Thirty four years ago, I was a 20 year old Sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, assigned to the Air Terminal. My job function then was the loading and unloading of all types of military aircraft. This past Sunday, November 18, 1978, was a normal day off for me as the Air Terminal was usually closed on Sundays. However, on that day, at the compound of The People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, it was far from typical. I had no idea what the evening of the 18th., or the following 11 days would bring. I would find out very soon.
California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to survey Jonestown and interview its inhabitants. Ryan decided to cut his trip short after being threatened by a Temple member and return to the U.S. with some Jonestown residents who wished to leave. As they boarded their plane, a group of Jones's guards opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others. Some members of Ryan's party escaped, many with injuries. These were the occupants of the flight we were about to receive. Even after hearing of the airstrip tragedy from the passengers and flight crew, we had no idea of what was to come.
Upon learning of what happened at the airstrip, Jones told his followers that Ryan's murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. The People's Temple would preserve their church by making the ultimate sacrifice: their own lives. Most of the 914 followers were given a deadly concoction of a purple drink mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. A few others had been found stabbed or shot, obviously not willing to go along with the suicide plan. Jones shot himself in the head rather than suffering from the poison.
This was my first exposure to the changes of the human body after death, and I became more curious with the transformation. I guess you could say that it was the beginning of my career in Forensic Science.
With tomorrow being Thanksgiving, there is so much that I am thankful for. It is quite different than the way I spent Thanksgiving Day 34 years ago.
This period, November 18 thru November 29, 1978 continues to follow me to this day and I will never forget the tragedy and the almost 1,000 lives that were lost through blind faith and the following of a religious cult and the direction of a madman.
I hope you won't forget either.