I’ve never escaped from that moment: Girl in napalm photograph that defined the Vietnam War 40 years on

By Daily Mail Reporter

It only took a second for Associated Press  photographer Huynh Cong Ut to snap the iconic black-and-white image 40 years  ago.

It communicated the horrors of the  Vietnam  War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of  the most  divisive wars in American history.

But beneath the photo lies a lesser-known  story. It’s the tale of a dying  child brought together by chance with a young  photographer.

Crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th Division walk behind them

Crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center,  run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack on  suspected Viet Cong hiding places as South Vietnamese forces from the 25th  Division walk behind them

A moment  captured in the chaos of war that  would serve as both her savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s  plan for her.

‘I really wanted to escape from that  little  girl,’ says Kim Phuc, now 49. ‘But it seems to me that the  picture didn’t let  me go.’

Kim Phuc giving a lecture at Oundle Festival of Literature in Cambridgeshire in 2010

Kim Phuc giving a lecture at Oundle Festival of  Literature in Cambridgeshire in 2010

It was June 8, 1972, when Phuc heard  the  soldier’s scream: ‘We have to run out of this place! They will bomb  here, and  we will be dead!’

Seconds later, she saw the tails of yellow  and purple smoke bombs curling  around the Cao Dai temple where her family had  sheltered for three days, as north and south Vietnamese forces fought for  control of their  village.

The little girl heard a roar overhead and  twisted her neck to look up. As the South Vietnamese Skyraider  plane grew  fatter and louder, it swooped down toward her, dropping  canisters like tumbling  eggs flipping end over end.

‘Ba-boom! Ba-boom!’

The ground rocked. Then the heat of a hundred  furnaces exploded as orange flames spit in all directions.

Fire danced up Phuc’s left arm. The threads  of her cotton clothes evaporated on contact. Trees became angry torches. Searing  pain bit through skin  and muscle.

‘I will be ugly, and I’m not normal anymore,’  she thought, as her right  hand brushed furiously across her blistering arm.  ‘People will see me in a different way.’

In shock, she sprinted down Highway 1 behind  her older brother. She didn’t see the foreign journalists gathered as she ran  toward them, screaming.

Then, she lost  consciousness.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, left, is visited by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut at her home in Trang Bang, Vietnam in 1973

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, left, is visited by Associated Press  photographer Nick Ut at her home in Trang Bang, Vietnam in 1973. Ut, the 21-year-old Vietnamese photographer  who took the picture, drove Phuc to a small hospital.

There, he was told the child was too far gone  to help. But he flashed his American press badge, demanded that doctors treat  the girl and left assured that she would not be forgotten.

‘I cried when I saw her running,’ said Ut,  whose older brother was killed on assignment with the AP in the southern Mekong  Delta. ‘If I don’t help her – if something happened and she died – I think I’d  kill myself after that.’

Back at the office in what was then  U.S.-backed Saigon, he developed his film. When the image of the naked little  girl emerged, everyone feared it would be rejected because of the news agency’s  strict policy against nudity.

But veteran Vietnam photo editor Horst Faas  took one look and knew it was a shot made to break the rules. He argued the  photo’s news value far outweighed any other concerns, and he won.

A copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong Ut is held at the place he took it 40 years ago in Trang Bang, Tay Ninh province, Vietnam

A copy of the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by  Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong Ut is held at the place he took it 40  years ago in Trang Bang, Tay Ninh province, Vietnam

A couple of days after the image shocked the  world, another journalist found out the little girl had somehow survived the  attack. Christopher Wain, a correspondent for the British Independent Television  Network who had given Phuc water from his canteen and drizzled it down her  burning back at the scene, fought to have her transferred to the American-run  Barsky unit. It was the only facility in Saigon equipped to deal with her severe  injuries.

‘I had no idea where I was or what happened  to me,’ she said. ‘I woke up and I was in the hospital with so much pain, and  then the nurses were around me. I woke up with a terrible fear.’

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, right, with Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, left and Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center in London in 2000

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, right, with Associated  Press photographer Nick Ut, left and Phan Thi Kim Phuc, center in London in  2000

Thirty percent of Phuc’s tiny body was  scorched raw by third-degree burns, though her face somehow remained untouched.  Over time, her melted flesh began to heal.

‘Every morning at 8 o’clock, the nurses put  me in the burn bath to cut all my dead skin off,’ she said. ‘I just cried and  when I could not stand it any longer, I just passed out.’

After multiple skin grafts and surgeries,  Phuc was finally allowed to leave, 13 months after the bombing. She had seen  Ut’s photo, which by then had won the Pulitzer Prize, but she was still unaware  of its reach and power.

She just wanted to go home and be a child  again.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc embraces Associated Press staff photographer Nick Ut during a reunion in Cuba in 1989

Phan Thi Kim Phuc embraces Associated Press staff  photographer Nick Ut during a reunion in Cuba in 1989

For a while, life did go somewhat back to  normal. The photo was famous, but Phuc largely remained unknown except to those  living in her tiny village near the Cambodian border. Ut and a few other  journalists sometimes visited her, but that stopped after northern communist  forces seized control of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, ending the  war.

Life under the new regime became tough.  Medical treatment and painkillers were expensive and hard to find for the  teenager, who still suffered extreme headaches and pain.

She worked hard and was accepted into medical  school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. But all that ended once the new  communist leaders realized the propaganda value of the `napalm girl’ in the  photo.

She was forced to quit college and return to  her home province, where she was trotted out to meet foreign journalists. The  visits were monitored and controlled, her words scripted. She smiled and played  her role, but the rage inside began to build and consume her.

‘I wanted to escape that picture,’ she said.  ‘I got burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, I  became another kind of victim.’

She turned to Cao Dai, her Vietnamese  religion, for answers. But they didn’t come.

In this 1992 photo provided by Phan Thi Kim Phuc shows her, top row second from right, and her husband Bui Huy Toan, top row right, with guests during their wedding day in Havana, Cuba

In this 1992 photo provided by Phan Thi Kim Phuc shows  her, top row second from right, and her husband Bui Huy Toan, top row right,  with guests during their wedding day in Havana, Cuba

‘My heart was exactly like a black coffee  cup,’ she said. ‘I wished I died in that attack with my cousin, with my south  Vietnamese soldiers. I wish I died at that time so I won’t suffer like that  anymore … it was so hard for me to carry all that burden with that hatred,  with that anger and bitterness.’

One day, while visiting a library, Phuc found  a Bible. For the first time, she started believing her life had a  plan.

Then suddenly, once again, the photo that had  given her unwanted fame brought opportunity.

She traveled to West Germany in 1982 for  medical care with the help of a foreign journalist. Later, Vietnam’s prime  minister, also touched by her story, made arrangements for her to study in  Cuba.

She was finally free from the minders and  reporters hounding her at home, but her life was far from normal. Ut, then  working at the AP in Los Angeles, traveled to meet her in 1989, but they never  had a moment alone. There was no way for him to know she desperately wanted his  help again.

While at school, Phuc met a young Vietnamese  man. She had never believed anyone would ever want her because of the ugly  patchwork of scars that banded across her back and pitted her arm, but Bui Huy  Toan seemed to love her more because of them.

In this May 25, 1997 file photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc holds her son Thomas, 3, in their apartment in Toronto. Her husband, Bui Huy Toan is to the left.

In this May 25, 1997 file photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc holds  her son Thomas, 3, in their apartment in Toronto. Her husband, Bui Huy Toan is  to the left.

The two decided to marry in 1992 and  honeymoon in Moscow. On the flight back to Cuba, the newlyweds defected during a  refueling stop in Canada. She was free.

Phuc contacted Ut to share the news, and he  encouraged her to tell her story to the world. But she was done giving  interviews and posing for photos.

‘I have a husband and a new life and want to  be normal like everyone else,’ she said.

The media eventually found Phuc living near  Toronto, and she decided she needed to take control of her story. A book was  written in 1999 and a documentary came out, at last the way she wanted it told.

She was asked to become a U.N. Goodwill  Ambassador to help victims of war. She and Ut have since reunited many times to  tell their story, even traveling to London to meet the Queen.

‘Today, I’m so happy I helped Kim,’ said Ut,  who still works for AP and recently returned to Trang Bang village. ‘I call her  my daughter.’

Huynh Cong Ut visits Kim Phuc's house near the place he took his famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of her as a terrified 9-year-old in Trang Bang, Tay Ninh province, Vietnam

Huynh Cong Ut visits Kim Phuc’s house near the place he  took his famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of her as a terrified  9-year-old in Trang Bang, Tay Ninh province, Vietnam

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