Page last updated at 17:48 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 18:48 UK

Reunited with the Vietnamese 'girl in the picture'

Kim Phuc, centre, flees with other children after the napalm attack on their village
Nick Ut's famous image of Kim Phuc fleeing the napalm attack on her village

By Rebecca Lumb
BBC News

Kim Phuc, the girl in one of the unforgettable images of the Vietnam War, has been reunited for a BBC radio programme with Christopher Wain, the ITN correspondent who helped save her life 38 years ago.

When Chris last saw Kim, she was lying on a hospital bed with third-degree burns to more than half of her body, after a South Vietnamese napalm bomb attack.

It was 8 June 1972 and Chris and his crew had been in Vietnam for seven weeks, covering the conflict for ITN.

Chris Wain and Kim Phuc
I found our reunion much more moving than I'd anticipated... Kim was quite emotionally charged, and that's catching
Christopher Wain

He remembers the day clearly: "That morning we'd arrived at the village of Trang Bang, which had been infiltrated by the North Vietnamese two days earlier. They were dug in, awaiting a counter-attack.

"In the late morning, two vintage Vietnamese bombers started to circle overhead - this wasn't anything unusual, but because we had been into the village we knew something was going wrong."

Many of the villagers had already fled to the shelter of a temple, among them nine-year-old Kim.

"We thought this would be a safe place - but then I saw the plane - it got so close," she remembers.

"I heard the noise of the bombs then suddenly I saw the fire everywhere around me.

"I was terrified and I ran out of the fire. I saw my brother and my cousin. We just kept running. My clothes were burnt off by the fire."

It's My Story - The Girl in the Picture, presented by Chris Wain, can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 18 May at 1600 BST
Or listen to it afterwards at the programme website

Chris and his crew were about 400m from the point where the four canisters of napalm had exploded.

"There was a blast of heat which felt like someone had opened the door of an oven. Then we saw Kim and the rest of the children. None of them were making any sound at all - until they saw the adults. Then they started to scream."

Lasting memory

A Vietnamese photographer, Nick Ut, was also covering events in South Vietnam that day.

As Kim ran down the road, her arms outstretched and screaming for help, he took what is now seen as one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

She was still running when Chris stopped her and poured water over her, while directing his crew to record the terrible scenes.

Kim Phuc is surrounded by Television crews and South Vietnamese troops following the napalm attack
Chris helps Kim as the horrific scenes are captured on film

"We were short of film and my cameraman, the late, great Alan Downes, was worried that I was asking him to waste precious film shooting horrific pictures which were too awful to use. My attitude was that we needed to show what it was like, and to their lasting credit, ITN ran the shots."

Nick took Kim to the nearest hospital, the British-run Saigon First Children's Hospital. Shortly afterwards, his photograph and the film footage appeared all over the Western media.

One result was that everyone wanted to know what had happened to the little girl.

It was Chris who found Kim the following Sunday, in a small room at the British hospital.

"I asked a nurse how she was and she said she would die tomorrow," he says. So he got her moved to a specialist plastic surgery hospital, for life-saving treatment.

Kim stayed in hospital for 14 months and went through 17 operations, remaining in constant pain to this day.

Her image became a lasting memory for a generation - but the little girl herself disappeared from public view.

Powerful gift

Then, 10 years later, a journalist from Germany tracked Kim down.

She was at university studying medicine but the Vietnamese government cut short her studies and ordered her back to her village to be filmed and interviewed. She was now a propaganda tool.

Even when she succeeded in resuming her studies, this time in Cuba, she was still expected to fulfil her duties as a "symbol of war".

I realised I have a powerful gift... now that I have freedom I can control that picture
Kim Phuc

It was at Havana University that she met Toan, a fellow student from Vietnam. They married and took a honeymoon in Russia, which provided them with a unique opportunity to flee to Canada.

"I heard rumours that a lot of Cuban students stay in Canada on the way back from Moscow, when the plane stops to refuel. By doing this I was finally able to gain my freedom."

Kim settled down to a peaceful and anonymous life in Canada with her husband and two children, but in 1995 she was traced by another journalist and the picture was splashed across the front page of the Toronto Sun.

"I wanted to escape the picture because the more famous it got, the more it cost me my private life. It seemed to me that my picture would not let me go," she says.

However, the realisation came to her she did not have to remain an unwilling victim. The photo was, in fact, a powerful gift that she could use to help promote peace.

"I realised that now that I have freedom and am in a free country, I can take control of that picture," she says.

'Impressive woman'

This idea led her to establish the Kim Phuc Foundation, which provides medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.

Chris continued with ITN for another three years as defence correspondent, covering amongst other things the Yom Kippur War and the invasion of Cyprus. Later he moved to the BBC.

He retired in 1999 and never expected to see Kim again.

"At the time, it was just another story, though an appalling one. It was certainly the worst thing I ever saw.

"Later, when interest was rekindled, I felt that Kim was being used. That was why 10 years ago I declined a proposed on-screen reunion with her on the Oprah Winfrey Show - it sounded exploitative."

Now, having met Kim, he's changed his mind, and no longer thinks of her as a victim of that picture.

"Despite everything that has happened to her, and all she's endured, she's become a very impressive woman."

A selection of your comments:

Whenever I hear reference to Vietnam, it is that picture that immediately springs to mind. It is this picture that symbolises how it is always the innocent that suffer. But, thanks to Christopher Wain, and many more like him, some faith in humanity is restored.
Jill Brennan, Snodland, Kent, UK

It is how you want to live your life that counts. If Kim wanted to she would have lived the life of a victim all her life, She chose otherwise. At first i did not want to read this report now i am glad i did. Reading sad stories depresses you but Kim has triumphed over her own loss. She is an example to others
Anil Dsouza, Doha- Qatar

As an 88 year old war veteran the picture has haunted me for many a year. Thank you SO VERY Much for running this feature of the survival of this girl. I can now look at the picture in a new light and -as I have always believed that there IS a God albeit such suffering in this world.
Cliff Billen, Weymouth Dorset UK

An amazing story, not just of a woman who overcame her history and turned it around for good, but of the amazing man who showed her such compassion and was still concerned about her being abused (at the the hands of the media) so many years later. Two people of remarkable integrity, who exhibit what is best in the human race despite meeting in horrendous circumstances.
Heather Williams, Stockport, UK

I saw the photo on the news stand when it was published. It fueled my antiwar feelings. I demonstrated against the Vietnam War. As an artist, I can never erase that image from my mind. It is almost as powerful to view all these years later. I am pleased she grew up and is happy, working for peace. I regret my country's policies in Vietnam and all around the world.
Sanda Aronson, NYC,US

The above picture makes me cry every time I see it. The despair and fear in those childrens eyes. It is good to know that Kim is, in spite of still being in pain, alive and happy. God bless her and Chris too!
Linda J, Essex, UK

Kim Phuc is a truly remarkable woman having endured such a horrific experience and injury and then going on to achieve so much for her cause. Her story is a perfect example of the futility of war, the harm it does to all of us and the inevitable solution of peace by non-violent means. Humans can be the most barbaric of any species. Will we never learn?
John MacKenzie, West Sussex

A moving story. I distinctly remember how shocked I was seeing the picture, being a kid myself in 1972. One cannot bear to think of all the pain (physical and psychological) this woman must have endured since that day, like so many victims. Let alone to think of all the innocent people who have perished all the useless wars.
Lieven Vermeulen, Gijzenzele, Belgium

I was 14 when this image hit the screens and newspapers and it's an image I can conjure up anytime. It's a potent symbol of the horrors and futility of war. For all the pain she suffered, Kim has come to terms with it all and deserves our lasting respect and admiration.
Steven , Attard, Malta

Horrific Yesterday, role Model today. Men rewrite history through determination. This is a clear indication that the past could help in shaping a bright future. Every victim can indeed become a victor. Kudos to Chris and all the likes who saw today yesterday and offered help when needed most. I'm sure Chris feel good too.
Adetokunbo Adeyemo, Fujairah/UAE

Out of tradegy has come a triumph for bravery,determination and sheer inner strength.I applaud you Kim and all you have strived for the sake of a normal life.Your story should empower the human race to better things and a better undersnding of just how lucky some of us are!!!!!!! shame on anyone not moved to tears by your extrordinary strength and I commend chris wain foir all his endeavours
steve Hyland, portsmouth uk

Words escape me at the thought of how human endurance can seemingly overcome hell on earth. Lets not forget all of the children still suffering around the globe today through war.
Jeremy, London

Wow..what a story..chris and his team, deserve a special award for their action...that picture reminded me of the picture of a chinese protester, standing before a tank, in tianamen square....CHRIS,you are indeed a star
kenneth ndukuba, london,united kingdom

I was 20 years old at the time and remember the images vividly...........It made me feel ashamed of my fellow human beings..........It is an image that will echo through the ages.
Paul Thomas, Doncaster

Very interesting.I learnt about the picture at my photography class. was wondering if the girl was still i know:)
Samantha M, India

Well done BBC for pointing out that it was SOUTH VIETNAMESE aircraft dropping napalm on Vietnamese civilians, not the USA. As with all civil wars there are no 'good' or 'bad' guys just victims. The South bombed their own people when the North took over the villagers and the North executed anyone who wasn't "politically reliable"
Peter, Notts

The attack was co-ordinated by the USA Peter, so your point is moot. Kim met with and publically forgave one of the Americans who believed he had co-ordinated it.
Tracey, London, UK

An amazing story of an incredible woman. Could someone still defend comunism? Could someone still defend the interference of USA in other countries no matter the excuse? Great story.
Alejandro Armesto, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Kim is an inspiration to us all, and is the ideal role model for today's young people. I remember seeing the pictures at the time and being horrified, and am so glad she has managed to have a good happy life despite the constant pain. Good on you Kim!
Rebecca Joynes, Tavistock UK

"Well done BBC for pointing out that it was SOUTH VIETNAMESE aircraft dropping napalm on Vietnamese civilians, not the USA." Yes, but ... The US dropped plenty of napalm on Vietnam; it was the US which pioneered its use in warfare and who then manufactured it for that purpose; the US has not signed the UN protocol banning its use against civilians; where do you think the South Vietnamese acquired their napalm?
rsmatthews, Vimoutiers, France

As with ALL conflicts it is the innocent who suffer the most. To look at the faces of the soldiers compared to the faces of the children is something which is quite haunting.
Andrew Vos, London

Would any news channel show these pictures today? As embedded reporters, they would only be allowed to show what the military allowed them to see. Examples of this are the lack of coverage of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan
nick, london

Print Sponsor

Picture power: Vietnam napalm attack
09 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Napalm girl meets city's refugees
19 Mar 10 |  People and Places
Photo that haunted the world
25 Apr 00 |  Asia-Pacific


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific