On Nov. 14, 1978, Jackie Speier, a 28-year-old legislative assistant to California Congressman Leo Ryan, flew with her boss to investigate the Jonestown commune in Guyana.
Four days later, she lay sprawled on a runway, five bullets in her, the congressman dead nearby.
Speier has detailed her harrowing tale in a new memoir, “Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Finding Hope in the Darkest Places, and Breaking the Silence,” published by Little A.
After hearing horrific tales of abuse from constituents whose relatives were in the South American nation with cult leader Jim Jones, Ryan agreed to fly there to see if the stories were true, and Speier — who was elected to the House herself in 2008, serving California’s 14th congressional district, and was re-elected this week — was part of his entourage.
Speier brought letters from concerned relatives to some of the Jonestown inhabitants, but few were interested in reading them.
“It was strange — I felt like I was speaking to people who had had something removed in them, like they had severed all emotional attachment to their parents and families and even identities back home,” Speier writes.
Later on, Jonestown members put on a show for guests as “Jones sat on his de facto throne … beneath a black sign that read, mysteriously, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’”
That night, members approached NBC news correspondent Don Harris with notes reading, “Please help us get out of Jonestown.”
Modal TriggerUndaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting
The next morning, Speier told those people to pack their things. Soon, Ryan and Speier were besieged by over 60 people hoping to leave.
As it became clear what was happening, Jones’ mood turned.
“When cameras were rolling, [Jones] spoke of how he loved [his followers] and how there would always be a place for them — but those declarations would be followed by thinly veiled mutters about treason and liars,” Speier writes. “He was visibly cracking.”
Speier piled almost two dozen defectors onto a dump truck to take them to an airstrip. Soon after, they heard a commotion.
She turned to see “Congressman Ryan emerge from a throng of people with a torn and bloodied shirt. While trying to keep the peace, he had been attacked by a member with a knife.”
Ryan was brought aboard the truck, and they made their way to the strip.
Speier was helping people board a plane when “a large red tractor-trailer rumbled onto the airstrip.
“About a dozen men leapt from the tractor, leveled their automatic weapons,” she writes.
“Screams of shock and anguish filled the air, underscored by the rapid pounding of gunfire. I dove to the ground behind the wheel of one of the airplanes and waited, as the onslaught of bullets thumped against the metal above me.
“I was lying on my side with my head down, feigning dead, when my body was suddenly crushed by a shocking blow to my side. It felt like a Mack truck had just sped over me.”
Speier took five bullets, fired at point blank range, in her right arm, leg and back.
“Indescribable pain ripped through my body, consuming me, only leaving room for a fleeting thought that I should lie still and pretend to be dead,” she writes. “I remained there, paralyzed by shock, for what felt like an eternity.”
Speier looked around and saw dead bodies, including Ryan’s. NBC’s Harris had also been murdered. When she glanced down, she saw “a bone was shooting out of my right arm, and my leg was destroyed. A huge hunk of flesh had been blown off of my thigh.”
The survivors waited hours for help, but none came. While waiting, word spread that Jones and his more than 900 followers had drank poison, and were all dead.
Twenty-two hours passed before Speier was carried aboard a Guyanese cargo plane by local army personnel and flown home.
While she had waited for rescue, uncertain if she’d survive, Speier had a revelation that changed her life.
“Twelve hours had passed as I lay, teetering on death’s precipice when a light switch was turned on inside me,” she writes. “I realized that the simple fact that I knew I was dying was proof that I was, indeed, still alive. I just needed to hang on. Until we’re tested, we never know how much we can handle. That day taught me that each of us is capable of far more than we might imagine. I vowed that if I got out of there alive, I would make every day count, I would live as fully as possible, and I would devote my life to public service.”
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