DA NANG, South Vietnam -- Only the fastest, the strongest and the meanest got out on what may be the last refugee plane from Communist-threatened Da Nang Saturday.
I saw a South Vietnamese soldier kick an old woman in the face to get aboard.
In the movies somebody would have shot the soldier and helped the old lady on the plane. But this was no movie he flew and the old lady tumbled down the tarmac, her fingers clawing toward the plane that was already rolling.
People fought one another and died trying to get aboard. Others fell thousands of feet to their deaths in the sea because even desperation could no longer keep their fingers welded to the undercarriage.
It was a flight out of hell and only a good tough American pilot and a lot of prayers got us back to Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airbase alive with the Boeing 727's flaps jammed and the wheels fully extended.
It all started simply enough. I asked World Airways Vice President Charles Patterson if he had anything going to Da Nang. He said, "Get on that truck and you've got yourself a ride."
It was a ride I'll never forget.
World Airways President Ed Daley was aboard. He was angry and tired. Daley said he had been up all night arguing with American and Vietnamese officials for permission to fly into besieged Da Nang to get more refugees out.
Daley finally said, to hell with paperwork, clearances and caution and we were on our way.
It seemed peaceful enough as we touched down at the airport, 370 miles northeast of Saigon.
More than a thousand people had been waiting around a Quonset hut several hundred yards away from where we touched down.
Suddenly it was a mob in motion they roared across the tarmac on motorbikes, jeeps, scooters and on legs speeded by sheer desperation and panic.
Daley and I stood near the bottom of the 727's tailramp. Daley held out his arms while I shouted in Vietnamese, "One at a time one at a time. There's room for everybody."
There wasn't room for everybody and everybody knew damn well there wasn't.
Daley and I were knocked aside and backward.
If Daley thought he'd get some women and children out of Da Nang he was wrong. The plane was jammed in an instant with troops of the 1st Division's meanest unit, the Hac Bao (Black Panthers).
They literally ripped the clothes right off Daley along with some of his skin. A British television cameraman who flew up with us made the mistake of getting off the plane when we landed to shoot the loading. He could not get back aboard in the pandemonium so he threw his camera with its precious film into the closing door and stood there and watched us take off.
We heard later that an Air America helicopter picked him up and carried him to safety.
As we started rolling, insanity gripped those who had missed their chance. Government troops opened fire on us. Somebody lobbed a hand grenade toward the wing. The explosion jammed the flaps full open and the undercarriage in full extension.
Communist rockets began exploding at a distance.
Our pilot, Ken Healy, 52, of Oakland, Calif., slammed the throttles wide open and lurched into the air from the taxiway. There was no way we could have survived the gunfire and got onto the main runway.
A backup 727 had flown behind us but had been ordered not to land when the panic broke out. The pilot radioed he could see the legs of people hanging down from the undercarriage of our plane. UPI photographer Lien Huong, who was in the cockpit of that backup plane, saw at least one person lose his grip on life and plummet into the South China Sea below.