Just hours before they started murdering the babies, Leslie Wagner-Wilson strapped her three-year-old son to her back and ran into the jungle.

Along with 10 other members of the Jonestown commune isolated amid Guyana's dense snake and jaguar-infested rainforest, she'd had enough.

They were exhausted, food deprived and had endured Messianic cult leader Jim Jones' faked sieges and suicide rehearsals.

The wife of Jones' security chief, Wagner-Wilson risked even more to escape unnoticed from the "utopia" that had become an armed encampment presided over by a madman.

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They were unaware that this would be the day when Jim Jones carried out for real his group "suicide", which was really mass murder.

It was November 18, 1978.

A total of 918 members of Jones Peoples Temple in Guyana would die, more than 300 of them children, in the largest ritual mass murder-suicide in history.

But the 11 defectors slipping off from Jonestown that morning did know that they were running for their lives.

For 50km through undergrowth so thick they could hardly see in front of them, they ran, Wagner-Wilson's son Jakari in a makeshift bedsheet papoose.

"I was so scared I was shaking," he later recalled. "I was waiting for a gunshot and a bullet and me dropping. I didn't expect to live beyond the age of 22."

Back at Jonestown, Tim Carter was hours away from seeing the unimaginable: his wife Gloria and son Malcolm in death throes from cyanide poisoning.

The Vietnam veteran was inextricably woven into Jim Jones' hierarchy.

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His sister, Terry Carter Jones, was married to the cult leader's adopted son Lew, and mother to Jim Jones' grandchild, Chaeoke.

They, too, would all die by the order of Jim Jones.

Reverend Jim Jones raises his fist in a black power salute while preaching at an unknown location. Photo / Getty Images
Reverend Jim Jones raises his fist in a black power salute while preaching at an unknown location. Photo / Getty Images

The night before, an investigations party led by Californian Congressman Leo Ryan had been allowed into Jonestown, prompting cult members to secretly indicate they wanted to leave.

The unstable Jim Jones learnt about a note dropped by follower Vernon Gosney, whose misgivings about Jonestown had begun on his arrival with his young son, Mark.

Jones, who was a Marxist and a secret atheist, was addicted to prescription drugs and growing more maniacal.

Revelations of "treachery" would unhinge him completely; as a child he had revered death and idolised Adolf Hitler, admiring the twisted German leader's sadism and eventual suicide.

Jim Jones had become addicted to prescription drugs and was losing control. Photo / Supplied
Jim Jones had become addicted to prescription drugs and was losing control. Photo / Supplied

Just over a year earlier, media investigations of abuse, blackmail and tyranny had persuaded Jones to decamp from California to Guyana, summoning 1000 followers to the jungle.

Tim Carter would later reveal guns and drugs were routinely smuggled inside food packages to the commune.

When Leo Ryan and his party, including newspaper and TV reporters, left Jonestown with 15 defecting commune members for Port Kaituma airport, the stage was set.

"Jones put all the pieces in place for a last act of self-destruction," San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman later wrote.

Jones dispatched a group of armed henchman to Port Kaituma.

Among them was Leslie Wagner-Wilson's husband, Joe, on the back of a flat-bed tractor trailer picking off defectors, reporters and Congressman Ryan with shots.

Ryan was shot in the head to finish him off and Vernon Gosney was shot in the stomach three times by a Jones loyalist posing as a defector.

Tim Carter was saved by an order from Jones for him, his brother Michael and Jones follower Michael Prokes to flee with three suitcases containing $1.6 million in cash and gold.

The men were armed and told to take money, in plastic-wrapped $US100 bills, and one ounce gold wafers, to the Soviet embassy in Guyana's capital, Georgetown.

They were summoned to the pavilion, where Grape Flavor-Aid was already mixed with cyanide in buckets.

Carter overheard Jones talking with his top aide and mistress, Maria Katsaris, who told Jones "the stuff" was "ready but it's awfully bitter".

Jones replied, "Can't we make it any less bitter?".

The shooters returned from the Port Kaituma airport and reported that Leo Ryan and others had been shot dead.

US Congressman Leo Ryan (right) was murdered on his visit to Guyana to investigate Jonestown. Photo / News Corp Australia
US Congressman Leo Ryan (right) was murdered on his visit to Guyana to investigate Jonestown. Photo / News Corp Australia

In the commune's pavilion, sitting on the "throne" among a throng of followers, Jim Jones used Ryan's shooting as the trigger for the mass intake of poison, saying there was "no hope, no future".

Jones summoned all his followers to the pavilion, where he announced: "The congressman has been murdered! … Please get the medication before it's too late. … Don't be afraid to die."

His cajoling and self-serving encouragement of followers, surrounded by armed guards, to drink the poison can be heard on the infamous "death tape" audio of the massacre.

When the potassium cyanide-laced drink was brought forward, Jones wanted the children to go first, sealing everyone's fate because the parents and elders would have no reason to live.

As Reiterman wrote in his book Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, Jones "gave the order to kill the children first, sealing everyone's fate".

In an attempt to save his son and wife, Tim Carter offered to pose with his family as defectors and go to San Francisco to kill a former Peoples Temple member who had turned on Jones.

The cult leader turned coolly to Carter and said, "Will you take care of (kill) your son first before you go?"

Dumbfounded, Carter shook his head.

Tim Carter watched his wife and son die from cyanide poisoning. Photo / Supplied
Tim Carter watched his wife and son die from cyanide poisoning. Photo / Supplied

With his brother and Michael Prokes, he went to Jones' personal cottage to collect the three suitcases. When he returned to the pavilion, he saw his own 15-month-old son Malcolm and wife Gloria poisoned with the cyanide.

"And here's Sharon Cobb, a paediatric nurse practitioner, with a syringe in Malcolm's mouth," Carter recalled.

"Malcolm was dead, his little lips covered with foam, which is what happens with arsenic and cyanide as it foams at the mouth," Carter later told CNN, saying he held his wife as she died.

"I put my arms around Gloria as she was holding Malcolm and just kept on sobbing, 'I love you so much. I love you so much'.

"She started convulsing …" Carter told the Chicago Tribune days after the tragedy.

"And then I ran … ran as fast as I could."

Dispatched with the suitcases, that night he "wanted to kill myself … but I had a voice saying, 'You cannot die. You must live'."

With armed guards encircling everyone and with children bawling and screaming, medical staff members with syringes squirted poison down the throats of little kids.

One of those children was Mark, Vernon Gosney's five-year-old son.

Vernon Gosney would lose his son Mark in the Jonestown massacre. Photo / Supplied
Vernon Gosney would lose his son Mark in the Jonestown massacre. Photo / Supplied

Mark's mother Cheryl Wilson was an African-American and she and Gosney faced discrimination as an interracial couple.

When Mark was born, Cheryl was left brain dead by an overdose of anaesthetics during the Caesarian birth.

Gosney moved to Jonestown with his son and immediately regretted it, but believed Mark would be safe when he left the commune in Leo Ryan's defecting party.

Leslie Wagner-Wilson and her 10 fellow Temple members fleeing Jonestown had taken with them Flavor-Aid mixed with Valium to keep the children calm.

"We were running for our lives, for if we got caught we would wish we were dead, because the discipline would be intense," Wagner-Wilson later told CNN.

"We have to move fast, I thought. Once they find we are missing, they will start the search. We started going deeper into the jungle and our leader, Richard Clark, lost his way."

Leslie Wagner-Wilson with the son she saved. Photo / Supplied
Leslie Wagner-Wilson with the son she saved. Photo / Supplied

Wagner-Wilson said they were close to the commune's front gate and, alarmingly, could hear the guards talking.

They kept the children silent, and finally moved off silently.

When Richard Clark suggested they go to Port Kaituma, Wagner-Wilson said it was too close, although the party was completely unaware of the shootings taking place on the airstrip.

She told Clark she would go to Matthews Ridge, 50km away, and if her husband caught up and shot her, to "get my child out".

The group moved along train tracks and found roads and at one stage Wagner-Wilson had to crawl on her hands and knees across a railway bridge because of her fear of heights.

When they reached the town of Matthews Ridge, a police captain drew weapons on them and searched them.

"We told him we had escaped from Jonestown and wanted to call the American Embassy," Wagner-Wilson said.

"He asked us if we knew about the shootings at Port Kaituma. 'What shootings?' we said.

"He went on to explain that he got a report that people had been shot at the airstrip."

Wilson, who lost her mother, brother, sister and husband that Saturday, would be consumed with survivor's guilt.

Leslie Wagner-Wilson lost many members of her family who were Peoples Temple members at Jonestown. Photo / Supplied
Leslie Wagner-Wilson lost many members of her family who were Peoples Temple members at Jonestown. Photo / Supplied

Leslie Wagner-Wilson later found out that her mother, sister, brother and husband Joe were all dead among the mass of bodies around the cyanide buckets at Jonestown.

Tim Carter, his brother Michael and Michael Prokes hiked to Port Kaituma.

Stumbling through a banana field on a pitch-black night, they buried some of the cash and ditched the suitcases before Port Kaituma police arrested them.

They would later be accused of being complicit in Jim Jones' apocalyptic plan before being cleared of any blame, but Michael Prokes would take his own life.

Two days later, Carter went back to Jonestown to help identify the bodies.

"As I walked through the pavilion, I identified what bodies I could. I saw injection marks in people's arms," he told CNN.

"I saw one in the back of somebody's head. I saw them on … somebody's neck.

"It was really evident to me that people had been just flat-out murdered, held down and injected, the ones that didn't want to drink the poison."

To this day, Carter lives with the trauma of Jonestown's end.

Tim Carter has relived the horror of Jonestown every day since the massacre. Photo / Supplied
Tim Carter has relived the horror of Jonestown every day since the massacre. Photo / Supplied

"Somebody was trying to kill us. And my family was killed as well. I cannot describe the agony, terror and horror of what that was.

"He murdered my wife and my son, my sister, my niece, my nephew, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law. That's how I feel about Jim Jones," Tim Carter said.

After learning of his son's death at Jonestown, while recovering from gunshot wounds in hospital, Vernon Gosney moved to Hawaii to "heal".

He became a policeman in Maui, but his decision to leave son Mark at Jonestown is something he thinks of "every day".

Vernon Gosney went to Maui to 'heal'. Photo / Facebook
Vernon Gosney went to Maui to 'heal'. Photo / Facebook

Leslie Wagner-Wilson suffered survivor guilt and two years after Jonestown contemplated shooting herself in the head.

She didn't, for the sake of her son Jakari, and went on to have two more children, two marriages and a struggle with drug abuse.

"I pray my family did not think I left them," she said. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about it."

Jakari Wilson went on to lead a troubled life, being jailed as a juvenile, and again as an adult.

Jonestown survivor Jakari Wilson is serving life in prison for attempted murder. Photo / Supplied
Jonestown survivor Jakari Wilson is serving life in prison for attempted murder. Photo / Supplied

He described his mother as his "superhero" for carrying him to safety from Jonestown, and then for not abandoning him after each prison sentence he served for violent offences.

Jakari is now serving a life sentence for attempted murder and possessing an illegal firearm.

He is currently incarcerated in California's High Desert State Prison, Susanville with an earliest release date of 2040.

Just 36 of the more than 900 Peoples Temple members who started that November day in Jonestown, Guyana would live to tell their tales.