FROM THE AIR, Jonestown looked as if someone had scattered colored paper around the central pavilion -- as if there had been a celebration, a party, that the Rev. Jim Jones had uncharacteristically allowed his followers to enjoy -- without forcing them to clean up.

Those were my first thoughts as I returned to Jonestown on Monday, Nov. 20, just 48 hours after I had left for what I thought then would surely be the last time.

Now, I was on my way back, by helicopter, to view a sight that would transfix a world inured to war and violence and death. The absolute horror of what lay below, the madness and desperation of the man who ordered it all and the almost banal way he caused them to die -- a potion of grape drink, cyanide and tranquilizers -- was almost beyond comprehension.

There on the ground, as we hovered overhead, were the grisly remains of Jones' last great act of madness. There on the ground were the men, women and children, white and black, well educated and untutored, who had believed blindly in the man they called "Father."

There on the ground were the bodies, already beginning to decompose in the tropical heat, of those who had followed Jones to the wilderness. The bodies of those who had, many of them voluntarily, carried out Jones' last twisted vision, the victims of what Father called "revolutionary suicide" and had code-named "White Night."

As the first reporter allowed into Jonestown to view the carnage, my job demanded that I bring back a detailed account of what had happened and try to find words to describe the horror that I saw.

Because I was a survivor of the Port Kaituma massacre, there were personal reasons for going back as well. I was hoping not to find the bodies of some of the people I had grown found of during my short stay at Jonestown, people like Sarah and Richard Tropp, whose unselfish and rational reasons for wanting to create a better world in the rain forests of Guyana had touched me.

And, quite truthfully, I was also going back to see for myself that Jim Jones and the henchmen he had sent to kill me and the others in Rep. Leo J. Ryan's party were among the dead. I particularly wanted to find the body of Tom Kice Sr., the tall, gray haired man with a crew cut, whose mean, demented expression I will never forget as he crossed the airstrip to kill us, and the body of Stanley Gieg, the young, blond-haired fellow who was driving the tractor when the shooting began.

AS I APPROACHED the radio shack near the pavilion, I saw the bodies close up for the first time. There must have been 40 or 50 of them there on the neat lawn in front of the communications center that had been Jonestown's link to Georgetown, San Francisco and the outside world.

I only recognized one of the bodies, that of a jovial, heavyset white woman who had served me coffee and cheese sandwiches two days before. She had introduced me to her daughter, a pretty girl with long brown hair, and we had laughed together about something I can no longer remember.

Now I saw the mother's body near the radio shack. She was still wearing the gaily flowered long dress she had worn the last time I saw her alive. She was, like most of the others, lying on her stomach, a clot of dried blood stuck in her right nostril. My God, I thought. Why?

I stared at the clumps of bodies in front of the communications center. I couldn't bring myself to leave them. I noticed that many of them had died with their arms around each other, men and women, white and black, young and old. Little babies were lying on the ground, too. Near their mothers and fathers. Dead.

Finally, I turned back toward the main pavilion and noticed the dogs that lay dead on the sidewalk. The dogs, I thought. What had they done?

Then I realized that Jones had meant to leave nothing, not even the animals, to bear witness to the final horror. There were to be no survivors. Even the dogs and Mr. Muggs, Jonestown's pet chimpanzee, had their place in the long white night into which the Peoples Temple had been ordered by the mad Mr. Jones.

THE HEAT and the stench were overpowering. There was nothing to drink because Jones had ordered the community water supply contaminated with poson. The Guyanese soldiers who guarded Jonestown said that a cache of soft drinks had been found. But they decided, even though the bottles hadn't been opened, that it would be risky to drink them.

C.A. (Skip) Roberts, the assistant police commissioner from Georgetown who was in charge of the Guyanese forces, at Jonestown, came along just as I was about to inspect the main pavilion. I had met him the day before when I was taken to the police station immediately after I arrived at Temehri airport. He had insisted that I give him a statement about the Port Kaituma massacre before I returned to my hotel.

I asked Roberts if Jones and his wife, Marceline, were among the dead. Yes, he told me. Marcie was over there by the pavilion. And Jones was lying, shot to death, on the podium that he had used as his altar. Only three of those found so far had died of gunshot wounds, Roberts said. Jones, his mistress Maria Katsaris, whose brother Anthony had come along with Ryan to try to persaude his sister to leave, and one other, so far unidentified, Temple member.

Roberts said, with both authority and what seemed at the time precision, that there were 383 bodies scattered around the altar, in the immediate vicinity of the pavilion. Another 21 or 22 bodies had been found elsewhere, Roberts said.

In all, 404 or 405 bodies had been found, Roberts said. It appeared that hundreds of persons known to be living at Jonestown at the time of the suicide-murder rite had either escaped or been killed outside the settlement itself, he said. There was no question of the number of bodies lying around us, he said.

Roberts told me that his men had found more than 800 U.S. passports, indicating that there had been at least that many people living at Jonestown the week before. He said his men had also found an arsenal of weapons, including 40 to 50 automatic rifles, revolvers and other guns, 20 or more bows and arrows "and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition."

We walked over to a table where this arsenal was on display and I couldn't help thinking of Jones' anger when Don Harris had asked him the previous Saturday about the one gun we had learned about. "A boldfaced lie," Jones had thundered. "We are defeated by lies."

The irony of those words rushed into my mind. The lies Jones had been defeated by were obviously his own. Not those of the concerned relatives, the press and the others who had tried to expose the deteriorating situation at Jonestown. It had been, I now understood only too well, the tropical concentration camp its critics said it was -- led by a man increasingly consumed by his own dark visions. Tim Stoen had described Jones as "a classic paranoid schizophrenic." At the time, I had thought Stoen was the madman. Now, standing in the midst of the guns and the bodies and the family-sized containers of cynanide that had been found, I knew the truth. If only it had been exposed before all of this, I thought.

IN THE CLASSROOM tent where Roberts was collecting the weapons that were still being found, the ammunition, the bows and arrows, the revolvers and the poisonous drugs, a rather handsome black man, dressed in a tank top T-shirt with a string of beads around his neck, approached.

Roberts suggested I might want to ask him some questions. He had, Roberts said, witnessed much of the denouement of Jonestown before managing to escape with his life. The man's name was Odell Rhodes, 36, who described himself as a former drug addict from Detroit who had joined the Peoples Temple to kick his habit and had stayed on... until almost the very end.

Rhodes described for me what had happened the previous Saturday about 5:30 p.m. when the Jonestown gunmen returned from Port Kaituma to report on their deadly mission. They told Jones that Rep. Ryan had been killed along with most of the newsmen but that some had survived.

Jones, Rhodes said, immediately called his followers, using the loudspeaker system strung up throughout the commune, to a meeting at the pavilion. "Alert, alert, alert," Jones had screamed, ordering everyone to the meeting that was to be their last.

"He told us that we've shot the senator," Rhodes recalled. "You know there's going to be trouble, he said." The time had come to commit the mass, revolutionary suicide his faithful had practiced several times before.

I walked from the schoolroom tent where I had talked with Roberts and Rhodes toward the pavilion. I wanted to see Marceline and Jim. She was lying on her back, less than five feet from the vat of poison. He was lying, his fat stomach protruding upward, his shirt pulled halfway off his chest, on the altar. Blood covered his face. Good, I thought. He is, in fact, dead.

I walked to the other side of the pavilion, not far from where Rep. Ryan had first alerted me to the oddity of all of the older people standing and jiving to the soul music that had been played in this very place the Friday night before. I wanted to see Stanley Gieg's body, just to make sure. His face was already grayish-blue but there was no doubt in my mind that what I saw was his corpse.

I walked back to look at the altar again. It was littered with bodies, most of them probably temple leaders, who had had the honor of dying next to Father. On the steps leading to the altar was a young black boy, who had died genuflecting before the demented man these people thought of as their god.

IHAD HAD ENOUGH. There were only two things more I wanted to do. I wanted to see the body of Sarah Tropp, whom I had kissed as I left Jonestown the last time and for whom I felt an unexplained fondness, and the body of Maria Katsaris, whose brother had cried as he left her to her fate.

Sarah lay all alone, apart from the others, not far from the pavilion. She was on her stomach, her short hair, now, filthy and overrun with bugs, clinging to her head. I was truly sorry. I never found her brother, Richard.

I then walked down to Jones' house, where I had never been before. It had not been part of the tour. Frank Johnston, the Post photographer, came with me but decided, when he saw the place, that he had enough pictures. I couldn't blame him. We had seen enough bodies and had captured, both in our minds and in his case on film, the horror of the final desperate hour at Jonestown.

But I had an old compulsion to see Maria Katsaris' body, not because I had felt in any way close to her, but because I thought I should see it so that I could tell Anthony and his father, Steve, that there was no doubt that she had died. With more than 400 Jonestown residents unaccounted for, I knew they would still be hoping that somehow she had escaped. I didn't want to be the bearer of bad news but I thought it would be better to be able to tell them that I had seen her body than to leave them wondering for days or weeks... or possibly forever.

Maria's body lay on a bed in Jim Jones' house. There was no question that it was she. Roberts told me she had been shot rather than poisoned but I couldn't see where the bullet had entered her body. But there was no question that Maria Katsaris had died along with her lover, the Rev. Jim Jones.

We had been at Jonestown for almost an hour and a half when the helicopter finally returned to take us back to the Port Kaituma airstrip. Our crippled Twin-Otter aircraft was exactly where it had been when the attack on Congressman Ryan and the rest of us began.

FOR MYSELF, I'll carry around for a long time -- maybe forever -- the memory of the terror we all felt when the Jonestown gunmen fired at us that muggy day at the airstrip. And I'll carry around a scar from a small wound in my hip.

More important, I'll always wonder why I was spared when so many around me at Port Kaituma were shot to death at point-blank range -- Leo Ryan, Don Harris, Bob Brown, Greg Robinson, Mrs. Parks. At Jonestown, it was pretty obvious that I was sympathetic to the social experiment going on there and the thought has crossed my mind that maybe Sarah or Richard Tropp asked that I not be killed. Or maybe the gunmen simply overlooked me. I'm certain I'll never know.