Boom! Be Thi Luu stumbles as the hard metal floor of the ship beneath her starts to sway.
Boom! A second blow to the ship’s left thrusts her up against the railings on the right as waters from the Gulf of Thailand splash onto the deck.
Boom! As soon as Luu hears the frightening hollow sound for the third time, she knows it will be the last. Mustering whatever strength she has left, she grips onto the rail as the right side of the ship crashes into the turquoise waters below.
For a brief second, Luu hears nothing but the eerie sound of the sea as the waters drown out all other noise.
Cough, Cough, Cough.
When Luu resurfaces, she is overtaken by hysterical coughs as air rushes back into her lungs.
All around her, hundreds of people fight to keep their heads above water as the waves as it threaten threatens to pull them down.
Floating in the water, Luu can feel her arms and legs begin to numb from fatigue and hunger. Images of her four young children flash in her mind as she closes her eyes, losing to the sea.
Flash-forward 32 years, (period) I am sitting across a table from Luu at the Immaculate Conception Church located in downtown Seattle. It is the week of Luu came to Seattle three weeks ago during Ash Wednesday, and Luu – now a resident of California – is visiting as a part of the church’s Catholic Unity program.
Luu, now 75 years old, was among a group of 100 Vietnamese escapees making their way to a nearby refugee camp when their ship was seized by Thai pirates. Pain, sorrow and fear are plainly etched on her face as she recalls the memories of that day.
“We were headed to a camp in Bangkok, Thailand,” she said. “Sadly, none of us made it there.”
The year was 1978, just three years after the fall of southern Vietnam. Luu, 43 then, was forced into an arranged marriage by her father.
“Everyone in the south was very poor after the war,” she said. “My suitor was prepared to offer a large amount of money for my hand in marriage, so my father agreed.”
Luu, however, was not as pleased. She had already been married once and bore four children with her husband, who died in the war. She explained that it was hard for widows to remarry, so when the opportunity came, her father didn’t hesitate.
“I didn’t love that new man,” she said. “I know my father only agreed because he was thinking about the well being of me and my kids. But I loved my husband very much and getting married would have meant betraying him and my children.”
At the time, Luu had heard of many stories of a secret anti-government group who were helping southern Vietnamese families flee to another country. Knowing that leaving Vietnam would not only provide a better life for her children but it also free her of the marital obligations, Luu spent the next few weeks tracking down the organizers of this group.
“It took me a long time to find any information about them,” she said. “The people who did know didn’t want to talk because they were afraid that the Viet Cong soldiers would find out. It wasn’t until just a month before I was to wed that I found an old lady who was willing to tell me.”
That old lady was Trang-Ngoc Nghiem. She lived near Luu’s house in central Ho Chi Minh City, formally known as Saigon. According to Luu, Nghiem’s daughter had escaped through the help of this organization just a couple of months back.
“To this day, I still appreciate everything that Trang did for me and my children,” said Luu. “She told me that I reminded her of her own daughter and helping me brought her some peace. My only instructions from Trang were to go home and pack, that she would take care of the rest.”
And Nghiem kept her word. On Sept. 20th, just four days before her wedding, Luu and her four children left Saigon to Kien Giang, a nearby city where they were instructed to go and meet the organizers of the escape.
By the time they reached Kien Giang, it was around 10 p.m. The organizers led Luu and her four children into an old shack where they were told to wait until midnight.
“I remember my heart beating really fast,” said Luu. “I have heard countless stories of families who were caught trying to escape. I knew that if I were to meet the same fate, my kids would be orphans.”
At exactly midnight, two men wearing black came for Luu and her children. They were placed in big crates and hauled to a nearby dock.
“When we got out of the crates,” said Luu, “we were already on the boat. Through the window, I saw four men standing over the tall dock all holding fishing nets, blocking the view to the boat.”
When Luu looked around, she noticed that her family was not alone. The cabin of the boat was packed with about 100 other refugees. At that time, a young woman came through the door to let everyone know that they were about to set sail for Bangkok, six hours away.
“As soon as I heard that, I knew that was it,” said Luu. “We’ve made it past the guards on the dock and safely onto the ship—the ship that would bring us to our new lives.
“We waited for only about an hour—approximately at 1:30 a.m—before the boat began to move. About another 15 minutes after that, we were given food and warm clothing. I remember thinking to myself at that moment whether Bangkok would be where we will settle. It was a little unclear where we would end up. But at that time, I was convinced that wherever we end up, it would be better than in Vietnam.”
The first few hours, according to Luu, were mostly calm. It wasn’t until about 4 a.m a.m. when she felt the boat’s engine shudder to a stop.
“We all thought that we had made it to the coast of Thailand,” said Luu. “Everyone had excited and eager looks on their faces. But we were wrong.”
As soon as the noise from the engine of the boat completely died out, foots steps could be heard above where the refugees were kept.
“We knew something was wrong when we heard shouting from above,” said Luu. “Then as we sat and waited, we heard the footsteps come right to the door of the cabin.”
When the doors swung open, men dressed in simple white shirts with blue jeans came running into the cabin. Each was small in stature, dark and thin. When Luu’s gaze met one of theirs, she immediately understood what had happened.
“Thai pirates,” she said. “Adults back in Vietnam would use stories of these pirates to scare little kids. It was the first time I had ever seen them, but I knew exactly who they were.”
According to Luu, these pirates were merciless killers. They come from a small island off the coast of Thailand and seize boats as they come by.
“They made everyone sit in a single file line,” she said. “They then went through our bags, taking whatever they thought valuable.”
Luu, along with every other parent on that boat, had one thought in their minds: What would happen to their children.
“I didn’t care that they took of my stuff,” said Luu. “I just kept thinking what they will do to my kids.”
After the pirates finished, they led everyone out and up onto the deck of the boat. Once again, they were told to sit single file.
“We were told to leave the rest of our stuff, that we wouldn’t need it,” said Luu. “On the way up to the deck, we saw what happened to the organizers of the escape. They had pieces of cloth stuffed in their mouths and were tied to the railings.”
While Luu and the rest of the refugees were sitting in fear, waiting for whatever would happen next, they noticed the pirates leaving the ship and going back onto their own.
“When we saw them leaving, I was so relieved,” said Luu. “When I looked around, I saw relief washed over everyone’s faces. Moms and dads were hugging their children, some sobbing quietly.”
However, the feeling of elation did not last long.
“We saw them drive their boat away,” said Luu. “Some of the refugees started to untie the captain and the rest of the organizers. We wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, with everyone helping any way they could.
“It was then that we noticed their boat had stopped. Minutes later, to our horror, the image of their ship was getting bigger. They were coming back. And they were coming back fast. No one on the boat could move. I think we were all too scared.”
Boom! The pirates drove their ship right into the left side of the refugee’s boat. The tension on the ship broke.
“It was a scene of total chaos,” said Luu. “There were people screaming and running around to find their family. The ship was rocking dangerously in the water after the first hit. I knew it wouldn’t be the last.”
Boom! Just as Luu predicted, the pirates dealt another blow to ship.
“When we were hit for a second time,” she said, “the impact was so great that I was separated from my children. It was the worst feeling. All I could think about was finding them.
But before she could, the pirates were back.
“Mom, can we have some green bean ice-cream?” Luu’s youngest daughter, Ha, asked.
“Ha, you know we can’t afford it,” replied Luu’s eldest daughter, Loan. “I promise I’ll try and find some when we get to Thailand, OK?”
This was the last memory Luu has of her two daughters.
When Luu opened her eyes she was back on a boat. She knew immediately however, that it wasn’t the same boat that had brought them thus far. At that time, her son, Minh, ran up and hugged her. He had tears streaming down his face. Behind him was his younger sister, Hong. Both were safe and unharmed.
“Where is Ha and Loan?” Luu asked, trying to fight back tears.
No one answered. Right then, Luu felt her world go crumbling down. Tears started to run down her as face as she hysterically called out for her missing daughters.
“I try not to think about that moment,” said Hong during a phone interview. “It has been nearly 31 years, but the sight of my mom in pain like that still brings tears to my eyes.”
“When I ran up to my mom,” said Minh during a phone interview, “I knew that she would know right away that two of us were missing. I just didn’t know what to tell her.”
Hong, now 40 years old, lives in San Jose, Calif. along with her mother. She is married, has three children and is a successful business owner. Minh, 50, lives in Sacramento, Calif., has two sons and works as an auto mechanic.
“My two kids are great to me,” said Luu. “Looking at them always reminds me of Ha and Loan. I don’t think that there is a stronger bond than that of a parent and child. I believe that God had a reason to take them away. Maybe they were needed elsewhere.”
Luu and her two children were sponsored by a Christian family and were brought to the United States in 1990. In all, 30 people on the boat that day died, including Luu’s two daughters.
“There are many stories about people’s struggles during the war or struggles with life adapting to a new nation after the war,” said Luu. “But the stories of the 100 people on the boat that day went untold. I feel like Loan and Ha are smiling right here besides me now as I remember the last day my family was all together. I feel like I brought them a bit of recognition by telling you this story. It makes me happy.”