‘Napalm Girl’ in Miami to mark milestone in lifelong recovery from burns

Published: June 29, 2022 8:44 AM EDT
Updated: June 29, 2022 8:47 AM EDT
Kim Phuc Phan Thi seen in June 2022. Credit: CBS Miami

It is one of the most searing photos in history, the picture of “Napalm Girl,” showing the horrors of the Vietnam War.

50 years later, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the girl from the picture, still suffers from those burns. She routinely comes to Miami to get laser treatment.

CBS4 talked with her and Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the photo, during one of Phan Thi’s final major treatments for the burns.

Phan Thi took CBS4 back to that day. She remembers the bombing vividly, saying, “Of course we as children were just allowed to play nearby the bomb shelter inside of the temple courtyard. Then, I remember after lunch, the South Vietnamese soldiers yell for the children to run.”

She was just 9 years old, and she ran as fast as she could, but she couldn’t get away far enough.

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of Kim Phuc Phan Thi taken on June 8, 1972. (Nick Ut / AP)

“And I look up I saw the airplane and 4 bombs landing like that,” she said.

The napalm set her skin on fire.

“I still remember what I thought that moment, oh my goodness I got burned then I will be ugly than people will see me a different way.”

She thanked God her feet were OK, so she could run out onto the road where 20-year-old Nick Ut, an AP photographer, had set up.

“I hold my camera, I took a picture of a boy one second and he died on the camera, but my eye looks at the pagoda, I saw Kim running with her arms like this,” Nick Ut told CBS4.

He snapped the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture, then he stopped to pour water on Phan Thi. Ut decided he had to help, so he took her and the other injured children to a hospital. They were told to go to another hospital.

“Even the doctor said she will die, no way she still alive. I tell them three time and they said no, then I hold my media pass and I said if she dies my picture on every front page on every newspaper. And they worry when I say that and took her right away inside,” Ut recalled.

His effort paid off.

“To be honest he saved my life, and he became a part of my family,” Phan Thi said.

For years, Phan Thi lived in Vietnam. Then in 1992, during a brief plane stop after coming back from Moscow for her honeymoon, she defected to Canada. Still, for many years, she hated the photo, feeling embarrassed, then gradually grew to embrace it.

“Now, 50 years later, I am no longer a victim of war, I am not the Napalm girl, now I am a friend, I’m a helper, I’m a grandmother and now I am a survivor calling out for peace,” Phan Thi said.

She even has her own nonprofit, The Kim Foundation, helping impoverished children.

But through all this, she’s lived with pain and restricted movement from the burn. That is until a few years ago, when she heard about a new treatment from Dr. Jill Waibel at the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute.

“The main laser is a fractional blade laser, and it vaporizes the scar tissue,” Dr. Waibel described. “So I always say it’s like boiling water on the stove, it literally steams it up but they’re the tiniest holes the human body has ever seen, and the human body is able to heal that.”

The doctor is doing the work pro bono because, for her, Phan Thi is a symbol of peace and hope.

“Twelve times, and now, yes, absolutely, after those treatments my pain is so much better,” Phan Thi said.

Now, she’ll only have to come back for minor laser treatments, and Nick Ut still continues to stay in contact, documenting what happened to the girl in the picture even years after the war.

“She looks better, look she so happy, she’s always smiling,” he said.