San Francisco Attorney Spends Years Searching For Sea Captain Who Saved Her Family

There have probably been guest lecturers in World History class at Pleasant Hill's Acalanes High School who have failed, in the past, to captivate their young audience.

But not this week.

Not with Lauren Vuong speaking.

"You can imagine, as a child, seeing someone bleed out to death is quite and impression," is how Vuong began her presentation in the school library on Wednesday. "It was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. Until I got on the boat to escape Vietnam."

Vuong, a 43-year-old San Francisco attorney, was at the school to share the story of her family's experience following the Vietnam War.

Vuong's parents, wealthy landowners in the south, faced terrible persecution under communist rule. It was so bad they decided the best, though incredibly dangerous, choice for their family was to flee. It was a decision that, from the mid-1970's to the early 1980's, hundreds of thousands of others made as well. They were called "boat people." A large percentage of them died in the attempt.

Even knowing the odds, Vuong's family of five crowded onto a small boat with 57 other refugees and slipped out to sea. Vuong was seven-years-old.

"It was almost like a suicidal mission. We said we got to leave at a time when there's less coast guard. What time is that? That's the monsoon season," Vuong said.

Ten days they were at sea, suffering storm after story, eventually finding themselves low on food, fuel, and water. Making landfall seemed unlikely. Although they were adrift in a major shipping lane, no ships stopped to help.

"It's recorded in news that 120 ships passed by that route that timeframe," Vuong said. "Let's say a third of them saw us. That would still be 40 ships and not one of them stopped.

But early one morning, one did. A liquefied natural gas tanker called Virgo did stop. The crew rescued Vuong and all 61 other refugees, eventually transferring them to a United States Naval vessel.

The captain of the Virgo, whose name Vuong's family never learned, had given her family the opportunity for a fresh start in America. Vuong's family eventually settled in San Jose. She graduated from UC Berkeley and got a law degree.

She never stopped thinking about what that captain had done for her.

"I would not have this opportunity," Vuong said, "but for one man who said, 'Stop, save them.'"

"Vuong vowed to find that man. She spent more than a decade tracking down shipping reports, union rolls, and ships' logs. Eventually, she tracked down a name and a phone number of a man who had captained the Virgo around the time that Vuong's family was rescued.

She called him.

I just said the one thing that I had wanted to say all of those years: I think you were the man that saved my family and I don't want anything more than to say thank you," Vuong said.

She got to do more than that, though. That phone call lead to an emotional reunion at the captain's home in Florida. It also lead to Vuong's realization that his story, along with the other seamen who came to refugees aid during that time, needed to be shared.

She has been recording her journey and is currently raising money so can complete a documentary. Vuong, however, doesn't want the film to be about her. She wants it to be about the ones she considers the real heroes.

"This little chapter, untold, is so beautiful and so healing in that it shows people coming together and helping each other with no political gains, no medal to be had, no treaty to sign. It's just the compassion of the human spirit."

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