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    Posted November 13, 2008 by
    Port Katuma, Guyana

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    Eyewitness to The Jonestown Massacre


    Apropos of the anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre (I'm recording documentaries showing on MSNBC and CNN), here is an article I wrote in 1995 for SOC Magazine about soundman Steve Sung, SOC, who was there and survived:




    Not all camera operators are as adept at dodging bullets as Bill Purdy. The tragic death of Bob Brownas well as correspondent Don Harris and othersin 1978, outside of Jonestown, an evangelical religious outpost in the Guyana jungle run by the American ex-patriate minister Jim Jones, serves as a constant reminder of the grave risks taken by those covering the news. The rapidly unfolding events of that day are permanently etched in the memory of Stephen Sung, SOC, the crew's sound operator.


    Jones had taken a group of followers from what he called the People's Temple in San Francisco into the South American jungle where he established a religious and agricultural community named for himself. Congressman Leo Ryan from San Francisco had heard stories of People's Temple members being tortured and held hostage at Jonestown. At the same time, the multiracial temple had numerous supporters throughout the Bay Area. Ryan decided to go to Guyana to evaluate the situation. "We tagged along to see who was telling the truth," remembers Sung.


    "We arrived at Port Katuma, a small village hundreds of miles away from Georgetown, the main city of Guyana. We landed at a dirt airstrip, about seven miles from the Jonestown compound. When we arrived, we weren't allowed to go to the compound, so we had to spend most of the evening at the airstrip. Finally, we got the go-ahead. The dirt road there was torturous. It was a tropical area and it rained a lot, so it took us about an hour to drive there by truck."


    By the time Ryan's party arrived at Jonestown, everyone was exhausted. The People's Temple members acted pleasantly, proudly showing off their compound. As darkness fell, the camera crew wanted to avoid another trip on the rough road back to the village and asked if they could spend the night in the compound. Although Jim Jones agreed to host Ryan and his staff, he ordered that the press party be taken back to Port Katuma. "We spent that night sleeping on a disco dance floor in the village," Sung recalls.


    The next morning, the camera crew was picked up and rushed out to the compound. "We knew this might be our only chance to get good footage," Sung explains, "so we did all the videotaping we could. We taped the temple members' ‘song and dance' about how they conducted their lives. We taped children learning in classrooms, plowing the fields, and so on."


    Later, while Bob Brown taped and Sung recorded an interview between Don Harris and Jim Joneshis last interviewseveral of the cult members approached Congressman Ryan and told him they wanted to leave with him. Jones, taken aback, begged his followers not to leave with Ryan's party. At the same time he promised that he would allow anyone to leave at a later time. One family refused to wait, and pleaded with Ryan to take them away from Jonestown.


    Shortly before the crew was to leave for Port Katuma, the temple members were summoned to the main hall by the ringing of a bell. Neither Brown nor the photographers were allowed to continue taking any pictures. "Jones looked worried," Sung remembers. "He was surrounded by his aides. We knew something was going down, but we didn't know what. Jones' people forced us to leave the compound."


    When the press party arrived at the jungle airstrip, the plane from Georgetown had not yet arrived. While they were waiting for the plane, a temple member suddenly assaulted Ryan with a knife, stabbing him in the shoulder! The press corps convened an impromptu press conference by the airstrip at which a bleeding Ryan explained what was happening in Jonestown. By the time the press conference was over, the Georgetown plane had landed and was waiting.


    "As we began to board the plane, we saw a truck speeding toward us," says Sung, reliving the moment. "The temple members who had come with us warned, ‘They're coming, they're coming.' Don Harris told us to spread apart. ‘There might be violence,' he said, and he wanted a picture." Sung ruefully remembers Harris' laugh as he mentioned the possibility of violence, unaware of how correct his prediction would be.


    "Bob and I moved to the tail of the plane to get a wide shot of the area. The truck drove toward us, and five or six temple members jumped out and asked us where everyone was. They weren't carrying weapons, and we hadn't seen any weapons in the compound. We weren't aware of the danger." So as Jones' followers returned to the truck, Brown and Sung assumed they were going to return to Jonestown. They were wrong.


    "The next thing I remember was people picking up guns from inside the truck and shooting at us. That's the footage the world saw." That now-famous shot came at a great cost. Brown took a bullet in the thigh, Sung in the arm. Seconds later, a gunman shot Brown at point-blank range, wanting to make sure he was dead. Only Sung's ability to lie completely still, despite the wound burning in his arm, saved him.



    Here is a link to the whole article: http://www.soc.org/opcam/07_fw9596/mg07_nnews.html

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