- Associated Press - Saturday, June 2, 2012

TRANG BANG, Vietnam (AP) — In the picture, the girl will always be 9 years old and wailing “Too hot! Too hot!” as she runs down the road away from her burning Vietnamese village.

She will always be naked after blobs of sticky napalm melted through her clothes and layers of skin like jellied lava.

She will always be a victim without a name.

It only took a second for Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong “Nick” 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. A moment captured in the chaos of war that would be both her savior and her curse on a journey to understand life’s plan for her.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc (right) hugs Associated Press staff photographer Nick Ut during a reunion in Buena Park, Calif., on Saturday, June 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Phan Thi Kim Phuc (right) hugs Associated Press staff photographer Nick Ut ... more >

“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.”

• • •

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.

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