Jonestown survivors recall fateful day

Threat from cults still exists, they say

OAKLAND, California (CNN) — A memorial service Tuesday at a mass grave will mark the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, in which 913 men, women and children died in the worst mass murder-suicide in recent history.

They had followed their charismatic leader Jim Jones from San Francisco to a jungle settlement in the South American nation of Guyana in 1978, believing he was leading them to a utopia of racial harmony and social justice.

“We really had a structure in place that would make us a successful community, living there with people of all different races and backgrounds, which really would have been a promised land or heaven on Earth,” survivor Laura Kohl said Monday.

But on November 18, 1978, that idealistic dream became a hell on Earth.

Jones’ followers were ordered or forced to drink cyanide-laced punch.

The 227 children in the “Peoples Temple” were poisoned first. Syringes were used to squirt the poison in the mouths of babies.

Then it was the adults’ turn. Some drank willingly. Most of those who protested were shot by armed guards ringing the camp. A few managed to escape into the jungle.

Kohl, who had been away from the compound buying supplies, said she still doesn’t know whether she would have willingly drank the poison.

“I do know that if I had seen my adopted family of 913 — people all dying around me — it would have been a very tough decision not to,” Kohl said.

Jones was found with a bullet in his brain. It is not known who shot him, or whether he shot himself.

‘What could the babies do?’

Jynona Norwood, a California paster, will lead the memorial service in Oakland.

Norwood had distrusted Jones and didn’t follow him to South America. But her family paid an enormous price.

“Twenty-seven people in my family died at Jonestown, including my mother. The youngest person in our family who died was three months old,” Norwood said. “What could the babies do?”

Reports of trouble in the jungle utopia prompted U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan to lead a delegation of family members of Jonestown residents and journalists to the compound to investigate claims that followers were being imprisoned and abused.

Ryan and his party were ambushed on the airstrip as they were loading the plane with Jones’ followers who wanted to leave.

“The shots rang out,” recalled Jackie Speier. “People ran into the brush, some under the plane. I ran under the plane along with congressman Ryan, trying to hide by a wheel and pretend I was dead.”

Speier, now a California state senator, was shot five times. Ryan and four others were killed.

Speier believes the likelihood of another Jonestown occurring “is just as great today as it was 25 years ago.”

“There are still over 1,000 cults operating in the United States and around the world,” she said. “And we — in terms of the government — have always looked the other way because of our great appreciation of the First Amendment and freedom of religion we have allowed many of these cults to operate outside the law.”

Norwood agrees that the threat still exists.

“I don’t think we have really learned anything from the massacre of Jonestown,” she said, “because the Wacos are still happening. Heaven’s Gate is still happening, September 11th is still happening.”


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Nov. 18, 2003
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 18, 2003.
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