PROVIDENCE — It was mid-May 1981, and for Lien Huong Nguyen and the 51 other Vietnamese “boat people” escaping communist Vietnam in a rickety fishing boat, the situation was looking hopeless.
They had been four days at sea attempting to reach freedom, but found themselves adrift in the South Pacific after their engine failed. They were without food and water, and the boat was leaking.
Their SOS signs and pleas for help failed to draw the attention of at least five passing ships.
It was then that Lien, who had carved out a life in Vietnam as dentist, began to wonder if she had made a terrible mistake trying to bring two of her three children, ages 5 and 6, on such a risky voyage.
“I looked at my children and saw they were so innocent. They didn’t know what freedom is, or what dictatorship is. And, I took them away from the house and put them into danger. I didn’t protect them. I felt so badly that night.”
Then she saw a light from a ship providing supplies for an Exxon oil rig. The ship, the 300-foot salvage vessel Rainbow, was skippered by Charles Romano Jr., of East Providence, an ex-Navy seal who had done three tours of duty in Vietnam.
Romano had received a memo from Exxon warning employees not to pick up any refugees. But deciding that those in the boat would perish if he failed to help them in the face of an impending storm, he ignored the memo.
The refugees were then transported from his vessel to a German drill ship that took them to a refugee camp in Indonesia.
“I always wondered what happened to everybody,” Romano said Sunday.
And for years, many including Lien Nguyen, had wondered about “the special gentleman” who saved their lives.
Though Lien had been given a business card with Romano’s name on it, she misplaced it and continued to kick herself for not being able to directly thank the man or express her gratitude in person.
“I told her to forget it,” said De Nguyen, another refugee who is no relation. “I said there was no way you would ever find him.”
But in late August, Lien, who has a dental practice in Santa Ana, Calif., was having some work done in her library when she noticed that one of the books on a lower shelf was out of place. She pulled it out and found an envelope with the long lost business card inside.
That “very, very, very good news” led to a festive reunion Sunday that brought together four of the original boat people and some of their family with the families and friends of the retired sea captain at St. Martin Episcopal Church on Providence’s East Side.
“God bless you and your family. You saved our lives,” declared Lien, who traveled from California.
Noting that other ships had passed them by, she said she worried that Romano would do the same or give them food and supplies and leave them to die in the coming storm.
But he did much more, she said.
“Had it not been for you, we would have all died in the ocean.”
And here are some of the results of Romano’s decision to take in the refugees: Lien’s son Ryan Tran, who was only 5 at the time and remembers getting his first glass of soda aboard Romano’s Rainbow, is now a doctor of internal medicine with his own practice in California. Her daughter, who was 6, followed in her footsteps and also practices dentistry.
De Nguyen, 67, who had been one of Lien’s dental patients in Vietnam and who made the trip with his 8-year-old son, Son, now works for a printing company in West Hartford, Conn., while Son is an accountant with Blum Shapiro in Shelton, Conn.
Theresa Nguyen, now 51, (also no relation to the others) recalled Sunday how her parents pushed her out of the house in Vietnam, telling her to follow her brother onto the refugee boat so she would have a life without communism. She took ill two days out at sea, passed out and only remembers standing on land after they were rescued. But, today, she’s the head of the renal department at Boston University Medical Center.
De Nguyen and Lien Nguyen — as well as Lien’s husband, Chau Tran, 75 — had first-hand experience with communist prison even before they made their move to escape.
Chau Tran was the secretary for the Ministry of the Interior for South Vietnam, as well as the lieutenant governor for the province of Phu Bon. De Nguyen, who worked under him, was the lieutenant governor for the province of Kein Hoa.
Because they worked for the South Vietnamese government, both men were sent to Vietnamese “re-education” camps for 5 to 6 years to “cure” them of their anti-communist tendencies.
After his release, Chau Tran immediately fled with his youngest son, now a mechanical engineer with the U.S. Navy in San Diego.
Chau Tran said he and Lien Nguyen decided to split up their family and try to escape separately on the theory that if one was caught, the other spouse would be able to bribe the police to get him or her out.
Tran’s escape did not come easily, however. He had to fend off 14 attacks from Thai pirates, but made it to the United States, where he was joined by his wife and other children. He became a social worker in Orange County, Caif. Before her own escape in the refugee boat, Lien Nguyen was captured and jailed five times.
Recounting the escape, De Nguyen observed Sunday that he had just gotten out of prison when he saw Lien Nguyen for a dental appointment and heard her say, “I am planning to escape the country. Do you want to follow me?”
Startled by the offer, he said yes.
To avoid detection, the escapees disguised themselves as communist Vietnamese soldiers and party officials, or as housewives going to the market. They traveled to the 37-foot sampan in smaller boats.
All went well until the second day, when the engine began to break down.
Romano, who received five Purple Hearts during his three tours of duty in Vietnam as a Riverine squadron member and Navy seal, remarked Sunday: “It’s always nice to find something in your life that you did right for a change.”
But he added: “I’m sure what I did was normal … Everyone here would have done the same thing I did. There’s nothing special about it. I just happened to be there at the right time.”
But those who came to give their thanks disagreed.
Not everyone would have done the same as you, De Nguyen told him. In fact, there were many who avoided picking up the boat people because they saw it as too much trouble.
Romano’s wife, Debra, and his friends, Dr. Denis and Elke Moonan, said they believed God had put him into the situation.
Lien Nguyen said Romano should know that his life influenced so many.
“My patients say they are grateful because, if it was not for you, they would not have such a nice dentist taking care of their teeth.”