On June 8, 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, severely burned by napalm, ran from her blazing village in South Vietnam and into the eye of history. Her photograph – one of the most unforgettable images of the twentieth century – was seen around the world and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.
When he first saw the picture in June of 1972, deep into the Vietnam War, composer Hannibal Lokumbe could not shake it from his mind.
A terrified, naked little girl, arms out like crippled wings, is running down a road with other children. Behind them, soldiers walk, rifles askew. And behind them is heavy, black smoke from Trảng Bàng village, burning and burning from a napalm strike.
It is one of the most horrific images of the Vietnam War, and the sheer pain and fear visibly gripping the little girl, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, all of 9 years old, came to symbolize the meaningless brutality of the war.
“I was just a little girl,” Phúc said this week by telephone from her home outside Toronto.
Hannibal, who finished a three-year residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring, was shaken by the image and immediately composed a piece, his first for strings, Children of the Fire, which will be performed Saturdayat the Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia. It is dedicated to Phúc — who will attend the performance and participate in a a conversation called “The Girl in the Picture: Remembering Vietnam” at the National Constitution Center on Friday, with former Inquirer journalist and author Mark Bowden. Hannibal will also perform an excerpt from Children of the Fire at the NCC.
In addition to the complete Children of the Fire, the cathedral performance will include the world premiere of Hannibal’s First Breath, Last Sigh: A Journey Called Life.
When he first saw the image of Phúc, Hannibal said, “It made me stand up.”
“It had that effect on me, because when I saw her running, I realized it was me,” he said. “I recognized that face, because that face was me. And the fire, the fire was symbolic of all I had faced in society as a man of color.”
“What I felt is in that music.”
Phúc, now 56 and living near Toronto, has two children, a grandchild, and a cache of astonishing memories of that day 47 years ago, June 8, 1972.
“We were in the village,” she said by telephone. “It was very peaceful. The Vietnam War happened — but far away.”
A few days before June 8, however, the Viet Cong showed up in the area and “my mom knew war would come to our village.”
For the next three days, South Vietnamese soldiers allowed the children to take refuge in the village’s Caodai temple, where they remained until June 8.
That day, after lunch, Phúc heard the muffled rumble of bombing. South Vietnamese soldiers saw bomb markers drop in the temple area and told the children to run.
“In front of the temple, I saw the airplane,” she said. “A big airplane. It was so, so fast and so close to me and so loud. When I saw the airplane, I turned my head and saw four bombs coming down.”
She was frozen with fear.
“I just stood right there. I didn’t run.”
The bombs containing napalm — a horrific concoction of gasoline and a gelling agent that burns at 2,000 degrees — rained searing, viscous gel onto Trảng Bàng village.
“Fire was everywhere,” said Phúc. “Fire burned all of my clothes off. Then I saw fire on my left arm. I tried to wipe it off with my right hand and that started to burn and I thought, ‘My goodness! I got burned! I will be ugly, forever different.’
“At that moment I was terrified. I was so scared.”
She saw her cousin, badly burned, and her brothers. And she ran.
‘I was screaming out, “Too hot!’”
“I ran out of the fire,” she continued. “I saw two brothers and a cousin and some more soldiers, and we kept running and running and running for miles. When I was so tired, I stopped. I was screaming out, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’ There were many people there, and one of the soldiers gave me some water to drink. He tried to help and poured water over my body.”
The water aggravated the burns and the pain. Phúc passed out.
She has no memory of the next few days, she said, but has pieced together what happened from what she has been told by her family, by AP photographer Nick Ut, who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, by doctors, nurses, and other journalists. “Their stories have become my story,” she said.
Phúc was eventually taken to First Children’s Hospital, in what was then called Saigon, with burns over 50 percent of her body. She was placed, for reasons that remain unclear, in the morgue and became infested with maggots and flies from a dead body.
Her mother, who had been searching frantically, found her there.
“My mom saw me,” Phúc said. “Of course I didn’t die yet.”
Because all the roads had been closed by fighting, her mother had walked all the way from Trảng Bàng to Saigon, a distance of about 35 miles, through rice paddies and jungle.
“Mommy told me that story,” Phúc said. “I just burst into tears. No food. No water. Just looking for me.”
No hope, and then ‘a miracle’
But the hospital had no hope that Phúc would recover, so she was not treated. “They asked my mother, ‘Where can we bury her?’”
There was also no room. Beds were at a premium. Burn patients were common. (Between 1963 and 1973, about 388,000 tons of napalm were dropped on South Vietnam, according to Robert M. Neer’s book Napalm.)
Phúc’s father arrived and the situation began to change — “a miracle,” she called it. Her father and a doctor recognized each other and together managed to get Phúc transferred to a burn clinic. Her veins had collapsed, making it impossible to draw blood. Her skin was so thin from burning it was virtually transparent. Her internal organs were discernible.
Nurses came and removed dead skin. Her father stayed with her day and night. She remained in the clinic for 14 months. She had a total of 16 operations through 1984 to repair the damage. And while she was first being treated, war came with vengeance to Trảng Bàng.
Nevertheless, the family lived in their home, no door, a wall gone, roof gone, until 1975, when all was destroyed. After the war, grateful to the doctors and nurses who saved her life, Phúc dreamed of medical school. But when she was 19, the government blocked her attendance: She was more valuable as a propaganda tool than as a doctor, she said.
At that point, she went into an emotional tailspin and began seeking meaning for her life. In 1982 she converted to Christianity. Ten years later, Phúc and her husband walked away from a flight to Moscow that had stopped in Newfoundland and requested political asylum from the Canadian government. She is now a Canadian citizen.
“I learned the lesson of forgiveness.” Phúc said. “I want to learn how to give back. I want to keep my dream alive to help people.”
She has established the Kim Phúc Foundation, which is devoted to alleviating the suffering of children who are victims of violence and war. And she speaks around the world and in the United States as a UNESCO ambassador.
“The picture in my life is one of hope and forgiveness,” she said. “It is a beautiful picture.”
The NCC event Friday is sold out. The cathedral concert is 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 23 S. 38th St., free with registration at paintedbride.org. It features a quartet of musicians, the Play On, Philly! Symphony Orchestra, the CAPA Concert Choir, and sopranos Karen Slack and Kelsie Onwuzuruigbo.
By Stephan Salisbury @ Inquirer