- 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 asked me if I knew the condition of the aircraft, and I said I did, and then he asked me if I was afraid to die.”
In the meantime it got incredibly hot inside the aircraft, even though the aft air stair was down and the door was wide open. With that number of people in the plane you just could not breathe. It was incredibly hot. We had Due, who was the CBS sound man, keep announcing over the PA system in Vietnamese, “No smoking!” We could not have dealt with a fire and we knew there would be one if some of the passengers started smoking.
After working on the first-aid stuff for the passengers for a while, I noticed that there was nothing for these people to drink on the aircraft. But there was a drawer that had been full of ice, and it had melted, and now the drawer was filled with cold water. I asked Bruce Dunning to rip up the galley curtains into little squares, about four or five inches square, and to soak them in the water. Then I took them and I walked up and down the aisle passing out little wet pieces of galley curtain so people could mop their faces. They all were just sweating like crazy. And we’d go along and pat their shoulders, and I told Val and Atsako to do something to bring up the morale of these people. The shock of what they had done to their friends and comrades seemed to be destroying them slowly. They had left their families behind them on the ground. They had run over each other and shot each other to get on this plane. Now the panic was disappearing, and the realization of the horror of what had happened—of what they had done—was starting to sink in. So we went around and talked to them and patted them on the shoulders and wiped their brows and their hands and tried as well as we could to comfort them.
I was dying of thirst myself by that time. And Mr. Daly came up to me and opened his shirt and showed me some Coke bottles. He said, “Go to the cockpit.” I went up the cockpit and sat down on the observer’s seat, and Mr. Daly came in with the Cokes, and he opened one and gave it to me. I remember putting the Coke to my mouth to drink, but everything went down my chin and onto the front on my uniform. I couldn’t swallow. We passed that one Coke bottle around the cockpit. And once more Ken Healy told me about the damage to the aircraft. He said he was not sure about the nose gear on the plane coming down, and if it did come down he was not sure that it would hold. He warned me to be ready for anything when we came down in Saigon.
I returned to the cabin to do whatever more I could do for the passengers. Then there was a startling moment when everyone on the plane suddenly looked over to our left and there was a great deal of excitement. What had happened was that we had finally arrived over Phan Rang, and Don McDaniel and his crew had been sitting up at thirty-five thousand feet waiting for us. They finally saw this little dark dot way down below them, and they thought it might be us. And they came down to us. We looked out the window, and there against the gorgeous blue sky and the big puffy white clouds was this beautiful red and white World 727. I know that there was suddenly a terrific feeling that went through the aircraft at that moment—and I know that it certainly went through me—a feeling that our sister ship had found us and that we were going to be safe because she was going to escort us home.
So Don flew his aircraft all around ours and assessed our damage. That’s when he told Ken Healy, “It looks like you have a body hanging out the wheel well.” And Ken asked him about that. One person did get crushed as the wheels were retracting. But his death saved the other eight people in the wheel wells because his crushed body stopped the gears and did not let the wheels fully retract. The others were saved when he was killed.
So by that time we knew we were possibly going to have a problem with all the wheels, and we knew also that the cargo doors were open and that the aft air stair was hanging down and the back door was open and the air flaps were shot and we would not have them to assist us in landing. We were in very serious trouble.
We continued on to Saigon. I said to Val at one point, “Come on, let’s go into the lavatory and have a cigarette.” So we went into the lavatory and we both smoked a cigarette, and I told her all about the problems with the aircraft. During the landing I was going to be sitting in the front seat over the nose gear. And she was going to be sitting in the aft of the aircraft. I told her I did not know if we were going to make it. So I told her what I wanted her to tell my family if she made it and I did not. And she told me what she wanted me to tell her family if I made it and she didn’t. I remember saying to her, “Just tell my family that it was okay. I didn’t have any fear.” I didn’t cry, and she didn’t either. You don’t have time for emotions that are obviously there at a time like that. You keep them hidden.