History

How A 12-year-old Girl Ran Into The Rain Forest And Escaped The Jonestown Massacre

On November 18, 1978, hundreds of people, who were desperately trying to find a better world, were coerced into a "revolutionary suicide" that is counted as one of the most harrowing tragedies in American history.

The members of a San Francisco-based religious group called the People's Temple "drank the Kool-Aid" (it was actually a cyanide-laced punch) at the direction of their leader, Reverend Jim Jones, in a secluded jungle settlement (a.k.a Jonestown) in the South American nation of Guyana.

The Jonestown mass suicide incident was regarded as the largest American civilian causalty up until the 9/11 attack. The 909 victims, including 304 children, stemmed from a range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

Now, as the 40th anniversary of the infamous incident approaches, there's a renewed interest in the events that took place that fateful day.

Earlier this year A&E released a documentary titled Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre, which looked at the influence that four women who were close to Jones had on the cult.

Leslie-Wagner WilsonNBC News

One of the women, Leslie-Wagner Wilson, joined the Temple when she was 13, but by the time she turned 15, she began to have doubts about Jones's message. Still, she followed him to Guyana.

However, after realizing that Jonestown was more of a prison than the paradise she was promised, she fled with her young son.

“I feel grateful every day because I did not believe I was going to live past the age of 22,” she said. “I had to forgive Jim Jones and those involved in order for me to move on and live. I have two other children. I have grandchildren. I have a good life.”

Wilson was among dozens who desperately made their way through the dense rainforest to escape death.

Tracy Parks was just 12 years old when she and her family were ambushed as they also tried to flee Jonestown.

Tracy Parks with her father, Jerry, in a hotel in GuyanaPeople

Today, the 51-year-old is opening up about her terrifying experience in the new series People Magazine Investigates: Cults.

“Get in the jungle,” Parks recalled her father, Jerry, screaming. “Run.”

“I felt like I wasn’t in my body,” Parks explained. “We were so scared, we just kept running.”

It took three days for Parks and her sister, Brenda, to make their way out of the jungle, and it was only then that they were informed about the deadly carnage that took place at the compound.

An aerial view of the Jonestown compoundPeople

“My brother broke the news to me little by little as the doctors were nursing me back,” Parks, one of the youngest survivors, told People magazine. “‘No one is alive,’ he told me. They’re all gone.'”

She lost her mother and three other family members to the massacre, and even today, she is haunted by the memories. Like many of her fellow escapees, Parks, who now runs a day care in California, insists that it "wasn't suicide."

“This was murder," she said. "Those children didn’t want to die and neither did many of the adults."

Tracy and Jerry People

In addition to People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which aired on June 12 on Investigation Discovery, a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced docuseries will air on Sundance TV this November to coincide with the anniversary of the tragedy.

How old were you when the Jonestown massacre took place? Let us know in the comments!

Awa has been writing for Shared for 3 years. She is a serial snacker who unapologetically loves celebrity gossip. Drop her a line at awa@shared.com.