- 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
Mr. Daly was at the very bottom of the air stair, waving a pistol in the air, trying to restore some kind of order. Val was helping people climb over the side of the stair onto the steps. I went to the bottom of the stair next to Mr. Daly. A family of five was running a few feet from me, reaching out for help to get on board. It was a mother and a father and two little children and a baby in the mother’s arms. I could see the fear in all of their faces as they ran and reached out for me. I reached back to grab the mother’s hand, but before I could get it, a man running behind them shot all five of them, and they fell and were trampled by the crowd. The last I saw of them, they were disappearing under people’s feet. There were just several loud shots, and they were gone—all five of them. And the man who shot them stepped on them to get closer to the air stair. He ran them down and jumped onto the air stair and ran up into the aircraft. And everything was so chaotic and insane, I remember registering in my mind at that mad moment: “I’ll deal with that later.” And I just kept pulling people onto the stair.
I felt a woman pulling on me from the side of the stair. She was trying to get over the rail, and she grabbed my arm. I wanted to help her on, but I also had to worry about getting pulled off the stair. I turned and grabbed her arms and tried to pull her over the rail, but a man behind her grabbed her and jerked her out of my arms, and as she fell away, he stepped on her back and on her head to get up and over the railing. He used her as a steppingstone. Mr. Daly saw that happen, and as the man swung his leg over the railing, Mr. Daly smashed him in the head with his pistol. I remember suddenly seeing a sheet of blood splash across everything and I saw the man fall off and people trample him, and I remember thinking, “Good.” That was just my reaction at that moment. The man disappeared under the feet of the mob.
By that time people were streaming into the plane, so I ran back inside to see what was happening. Atsako grabbed me, and she said, “Captain Healy needs you.” So I went to the cockpit and knocked on the door. It opened, and Captain Healy told me, “Joe Hrezo has been separated from the plane. When he’s back on board, you let me know.” I said okay.
“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.”
What had happened during all of this was that Joe and the British newsman had been pulled off the plane by the mob, and then they couldn’t get back on. We lost both of them. Joe had run to the tower, and the guy operating the tower let him in. Joe then called the plane, and Ken Healy said he would taxi over onto the taxiway. He told Joe to make a run for the plane when we came by. We would not be stopping at any time. The moment Joe was on board we were going to take off. Captain Healy told me, “When you know for sure that Joe’s on board, just pound on the door.”
I went to the back of the plane and told Val, “Watch the air stair, and when you see Joe step on it, raise your arms in the air and I’ll signal Ken.”
While we waited to go by the tower, people kept getting on the aircraft. We were just shoving them into seats—five and six people in three seats. I remember asking as I directed them to the seats, “Where are the women and children? Where are the women and children?” It turned out that all of our first passengers were soldiers. Later we found that we had eleven women and children on board, but that was it. The rest were soldiers.
People on the aircraft were sitting in their seats totally in shock. And this one fool kept yelling over and over again, “Take off! Take off! Take off! Take off!”
Then, as we taxied by the tower, Mr. Daly was still somewhere on the bottom of the air stair, pulling people on. A moment after we passed the tower, Val turned around and raised her arm in the air, and I turned around and started to pound on the cockpit door. As I did, I heard the engines start to roar and we started to gain speed. Then this man who had been yelling for us to take just started shrieking. “Oh, no! We’re taking off on the grass!”
What had happened was that we were taking off from the taxiway, and Ken had gunned the engines to warn people to get out of the way or we would run over them. The reason we were on the grass was that the taxiway ended and the grass began and there was no way for us to get back on the runway at that point. We gained some speed and lifted off, and as we did, we hit a vehicle and then a fence pole, which did considerable damage to the wing. There was more damage to the aircraft from bullets and from a grenade that went off under one wing. But inside the aircraft we couldn’t see the damage, so we didn’t really know how bad the situation outside was. But Captain Healy was aware of it.