- Historic Sites
Present At The Apocalypse
Jan Wollett found herself on the last flight of refugees out of a crumbling Da Nang in 1975
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Bruce rounded up his cameraman, Mike Marriott, and his sound man, Mai Van Due, and brought them out to the airport. We all boarded the aircraft, a World Airways 727. As the senior flight attendant I had been informed that we would be carrying one or two Vietnamese flight attendants as interpreters and that we would also be accompanied by guards for crowd control, since there had been some difficulty with crowds in Da Nang on the previous day. We were also supposed to be carrying soft drinks, orange juice, and sandwiches for the passengers.
“A massive swarm of people came up and out of bunkers. Thousands—and I mean literally thousands—started racing toward us.”
Once we were on the plane, I told Val and Atsako Okuba, the other flight attendants, to check and see what we had on board. Well, we discovered that the aircraft had not been catered. That was our first sign that there was something very strange going on. There were no soft drinks, no orange juice, and no sandwiches on board. And there were no Vietnamese flight attendants and no guards either.
There was a discussion on the plane as to what we should do—whether or not we should make the flight. Daly and the flight crew were on board by that time, and so were Dunning and his CBS crew. Eventually, two officials from USAlD came on board and assured us that everything was fine up at Da Nang and that we would not need the guards and could make the trip.
By that time it was already eight in the morning—much later than we had planned to take off. And Mr. Daly decided that we would go up to Da Nang and pick up some refugees, women and children, and bring them out.
So we took off. And the flight up to Da Nang was very good. We also took along with us a British newsman and another man from UPI. We chatted casually on the way up.
Then we started our descent into Da Nang. About twenty minutes behind us was another World Airways 727, flown by Don McDaniel, and behind him was yet another 727, flown by Dave Wanio. We figured that we would be on the ground for ten or fifteen minutes, load and take off, and then the next plane would land, and then the third. That way we could bring out three plane-loads of people in less than an hour.
When we landed, it was very strange because we did not see a soul at first. Nobody. It was just as if the entire airfield was deserted. And then, as we started to taxi, it seemed as if a massive swarm of people came up and out of bunkers. Thousands—and I mean literally thousands—started racing toward us. They were running, they were on motorcycles, they were in vans, they were in jeeps and cars and personnel carriers, they were on bicycles. They were coming out to us in anything they could find.
We had a plan. Mr. Daly and Joe Hrezo, a station chief for World, would get off the plane first and line up people on the back air stair. I was to stay in the forward part of the plane, Atsako would stay in the middle, and Val would be in the aft.
We started a slow taxi. I was standing in the cockpit door, looking out the front window. Then I realized that something really bizarre was going on. A group of people raced up next to the aircraft in a little truck. And a man jumped off the truck and ran up in front of us. I was looking down at him as we were slowly taxiing, and he took out a pistol and started shooting at us. Suddenly I had the fantastic feeling that I was in the middle of a John Wayne Western. And I thought, “Why are they shooting at us? We’re the good guys.”
We taxied past the man with the gun and slowed down further. I was now waiting for the first people to come on board. We were going to put them in seats starting at the front of the aircraft and then keep going back and fill up the seats in an orderly fashion.
Then the people started coming on board. They were running. And they were just wild-eyed. And they were soldiers. About nine soldiers came on board, and I seated them. Then a tenth came on, and he wouldn’t sit down. He was hysterical, and he kept running up and down the aisle, screaming in English, “Take off! Take off! Take off! They’re rocketing the field!” He was just screaming it over and over again. And I grabbed him, and I shouted, “Shut up and sit where I tell you to sit!” I pushed him into a seat.
Still, there were surprisingly few people getting on board the aircraft. So I thought I’d better go to the back and see what was happening. When I got to the back, I saw Mr. Daly at the bottom of the air stair, and he was being mauled. His clothes were in tatters. And Joe Hrezo was gone. Val was trying to help Mr. Daly and was trying to pull people onto the air stair as the aircraft continued moving down the taxiway. At the bottom of the air stair were hundreds of people, all desperate and crazy and screaming and clawing at Val and Mr. Daly. You could see no end to those people. They were running to the air stair from every direction. I climbed down on the stair and tried to help.