The story of Tracy Parks: A survivor of the Jonestown Massacre

"That place was the closest thing to hell."

Tracy was one of the youngest to escape from the massacre Gunfire rang out across the Guyana airstrip as 12-year-old Tracy Parks and her family desperately tried to dodge the bullets ricocheting around them.

Tracy was lucky but her mother, Patricia, was not.

With her dad, Jerry, screaming at her to leave her mum’s bleeding body behind, Tracy ran, following her older sister Brenda, then 18, into the jungle.

She would hide there for the next three days, fever-ridden and traumatised, but alive.

Not only had Tracy evaded the shooters, but also the largest mass suicide in history which killed more than 900 men, women and children of the Peoples Temple religious sect.

Tracy hid in the jungle for three days after fleeing Jonestown. (Credit: Supplied)

The Parks family had been part of the cult, led by the charismatic and psychotic Jim Jones, for Tracy’s whole childhood.

But on November 18, 1978 they decided to flee. Jones sent his henchmen to ambush the escapees before they could board a plane.

Along with Patricia, four other people were killed.

At the same time Jones gathered the rest of his followers, telling them it was time for their mock-suicide drills to be put into action.

Almost 1000 people killed themselves by drinking cyanide-laced grape punch from an enormous vat. Among the dead were 304 children.

Those too young to drink from cups had cyanide-filled syringes forced into their mouths by their parents.

Her father Jerry was part of the Peoples Temple. (Credit: People TV)

Forty-five years on, Tracy still struggles to grasp the horrors of that day.

“This wasn’t suicide,” Tracy, now 56, once told media.

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

Tracy recalls being told the news of the atrocity by her older brother Dale.

“[He] broke the news to me little by little as the doctors were nursing me back,” Tracy recalls.

“No-one is alive,” he told me. “They’re all gone.”

Tracy and Dale, along with Jerry, Brenda, and their grandmother Edith, were five of 36 survivors. Tracy said Brenda, who died in 2013 after decades of ill health, never got over their mother’s death.

“Even years later, Brenda would tell me, ‘I wish that bullet that got mum had killed me,’” Tracy said.

Tracy’s parents joined the Peoples Temple in the early 1960s, drawn to Jones and his eclectic version of Christianity and belief in issues like racial equality.

The massacre, led by Jim Jones killed hundreds. (Credit: Supplied)

It was only in August 1977, when Jones moved his church and followers to a secluded compound in South America, that things got really dark.

When the Parks family arrived a year after the Jonestown commune was set up, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t the paradise promised.

Beatings were common, and Tracy and the other children worked in the fields in the blistering heat for eight hours at a time while gun-toting guards watched their every move.

Jones, now drug-addled, taunted them that escape was futile because panthers and snakes stalked the bordering jungle.

“That place was the closest thing to hell on Earth,” Tracy said.

“The moment I saw that front gate I thought, ‘we are going to die here.’”

In fact she was incredibly lucky not to, even though that is still of little comfort given the murder of so many of her loved ones.

Every year, to mark the anniversary of the massacre Tracy places her mother’s photo in her front window and surrounds it with lit candles.

“Time doesn’t heal anything,” she said sadly.

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