ROCHESTER, N.Y. – A Vietnamese war refugee who survived a 1977 pirate attack that separated him from his wife and infant child reunited with his grown son in upstate New York on Monday after nearly 34 years apart.
Hao Truong was tossed into the South China Sea after pirates attacked a boat taking refugee families to Thailand in December 1977. He said he managed to stay afloat for 16 hours before being rescued by a fishing boat.
In a Thai refugee camp, Truong learned weeks later that his wife had died -- her body washed up on shore along with another female victim. But he said he'd long assumed that their 7-month-old baby, Kham, had survived and was raised by someone else.
Truong resettled in the United States in 1978, sponsored by an uncle living in Louisiana. On a trip to Thailand in June after hearing Kham might be alive, a social worker helped him locate his son, now a 34-year-old father of two named Samart Khumkhaw who lives in Surat Thani province.
"At this minute, I feel so excited and happy," Truong said as he stood next to his son at Rochester's airport surrounded by two dozen relatives and friends waving tiny U.S. flags and "Welcome Home" balloons. "We're going to have a big Thanksgiving holiday!
"When I found him in Thailand, I stayed with him for almost three weeks. Then we know each other well, without asking anything, just like we know (each other) a long time ago."
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer helped Truong obtain a visitor's visa for his son, a carpenter, to travel alone to Rochester to meet his father's family. During a four-month stay, Khumkhaw also plans to visit his 86-year-old grandfather in Texas.
"We don't want to keep him too long away from his own family," his father said, adding that "he knows my wish is to bring him to USA" someday.
In late 1978, Truong traveled to Rochester to meet his late wife's siblings and stayed. He remarried, raised four children and was a metalworker for 30 years before being laid off in 2009. At age 54, he's studying for a community college degree and retraining as a machinist.
During four days of captivity before being pushed overboard, Truong said the pirate boat crew seemed enthralled at how cute his child was. "That's why he never think for a moment that anybody would kill this little baby," said his sister, Hong Truong.
While the circumstances of the child's passage to safety remain murky, he was given to a bereft young couple in Thailand whose daughter had died two days after birth.
"A lady -- we don't know the relationship -- told the couple she had a little baby boy and asked if they would raise him," Truong's sister said. "The foster mom saw the baby and wanted to adopt him, but she can't ask where the baby come from."
More than 3 million people fled Communist-controlled Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Many sailed long distances in overcrowded small boats, at risk of shipwreck and pirate attacks.
The plight of the so-called "boat people" turned into a humanitarian crisis as they came under sometimes deadly assault. More than 125,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.