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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
In any case, we were airborne. We had gotten out of Da Nang. I never really thought we would not make it out. You don’t have time to think about things like that in the midst of so much confusion. But I discovered later that we almost didn’t make it. We ended up with all that damage and with 358 people on board. We had 60 people in the cargo pits, and we had people in the wheel wells. The plane was supposed to carry 133. Ken Healy later sent Boeing all the statistics from our takeoff, and they ran them through their computer and told us that according to their figures, our plane could not possibly have taken off. Ken sent Boeing a telegram later that said, “You build one hell of an aircraft.”
As we took off, I was standing in the front of the plane, and I started looking at the passengers and counting them. At that moment I noticed a man sitting in the front seat who was very pale and who had been badly injured. His intestines were hanging out. I took my hand and just shoved them back inside, and then I ripped a towel off somebody’s neck and tied it around his waist to keep his intestines in. Then I realized that we were going to need a lot of first-aid stuff. I grabbed the first-aid kit and found that it had been looted on the ground in Saigon. We had no medical equipment on board. None. There were no supplies of any kind anywhere on the aircraft. No bandages. Nothing.
When I finished helping the guy in the front row, I looked down the aisle and saw a man crawling toward me. I recognized him right away. His whole head was caked with blood, and there was blood all over his face. It was the man who had pulled the woman out of my arms—the man Mr. Daly hit with his pistol. The last time I had seen that woman she was just pulp and cotton on the ground. And the last time I had seen the man he was being trampled. But he had managed to get on board, and now he was crawling up the aisle toward me. I knew he was coming to me. And that was the only moment I remember saying a prayer that day. I asked, “Oh, please, God, don’t have him come to me.” And he crawled up to me. And he grabbed my pants leg, and he looked up at me, and he just said, “Help.”
So I grabbed somebody and pulled him out of a seat, and I helped this man into the seat. His head was laid wide open and I could see inside his head, and it was just a bloody, pulpy mess. I had nothing to stop the bleeding with. I knew that if I didn’t stop the bleeding, he would die right there in my arms. A soldier next to the man had on a flak jacket. So I ripped open the flak jacket and grabbed the sawdust stuffing and pushed the sawdust into the man’s wound to try to stop the flow of blood. I just kept packing the wound with sawdust. I am sure that the American Medical Association would have been shocked by what I did. But it worked. I ripped off another man’s shirt, and I tied it around the wounded man’s head in order to keep the sawdust in and in order to keep his head in one piece. He made it through the flight alive. He must have been very strong. He never even went into shock.
I then went to the back of the plane once more. I saw Val and Mr. Daly and Joe Hrezo working to free a man who was trapped in the aft air stair. The aft door could not be closed. The man stuck on the air stair had broken his leg. They finally got him loose and brought him inside the aircraft. Val and I tried to put together a splint for his leg. Joe then told me that the British news guy had never made it back on the plane. He had stepped off onto the runway in Da Nang to film the crowd and was unable to get back on board in the panic. He was in the tower back there, and Ken Healy promised him that an Air America chopper would come in and pick him up. Later that day it did, and he made it safely back to Cam Ranh Bay.
Val and Atsako and I just kept working and repairing the obvious damage to the people on the plane. That consumed most of our time. I guess we had been airborne for about an hour when I started looking at the passengers who weren’t wounded. And I saw this horrible look on their faces. Finally they had realized what they had just done. And the questions started. “Will another plane come?” We lied and assured them, “Yes, there will be other planes.” They realized that they had shot and killed their own people to get on board our aircraft. Now they were sorry. So we lied to them. We knew there would be no other flights to Da Nang. We were the last. The people left behind would not get out. In fact, Ken Healy had talked to Don McDaniel on the next 727 and told him to wait for us over Phan Rang, and he radioed Dave Wanio and told him to go back to Saigon to prepare for an emergency landing. We had quite a bit of damage to the aircraft, and Ken was not sure that the landing gear would come down when we tried to land in Saigon. I knew what that would mean.