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A Beloved Student, Son Gone in a Flash

Accident: Killed on PCH, Samsun Phan was an energetic achiever.

October 03, 1998|STEVE CARNEY and RAY TESSLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She loved him and fretted about him, doting one minute and scolding the next, until her boy's head sometimes became a roar and he'd just have to lose himself in his music alone in his room.

So after he fought with his mother over the usual--his studying and playing computer games until late into the night--Samsun Phan did something he'd never done before.

And it became his mother's--any mother's--most awful day on Earth because it was the last time she would see him alive.

Donning his favored black trench coat and throwing on the stereo headphones, the 15-year-old honor student stormed out of his Newport Beach home. It was 11 p.m. Wednesday as he pounded along Pacific Coast Highway, blowing off steam.

Before, when he had gone for walks to clear his head, he usually just went down the street, or to a nearby friend's house. This was different.

When Lai Phan, 56, realized that her only son had left, she got in her car and began searching. Up and down the streets, peering into the shadows for the familiar shape.

Much was on her mind.

She always felt guilt. Samsun's father--Lai's second husband--left shortly after the boy was born, returning on the occasional Christmas to drop off a present, a family member said.

So Phan said she tried to be both a mother and father to Samsun, but broke down at the thought of him having to learn to tie a tie from a friendly administrator at Mariners Christian School.

She said their close relationship was sometimes more friend-to-friend than mother-son. But this night they had argued again over his night-owl ways--playing computer games and studying until 2 a.m., getting up at 6 a.m. for school. And then there was the C-plus on an English essay, a first for the straight-A student.

She searched on. Only Samsun was heading in one direction, his mother in another.

"I drove all over. I never thought he would walk that way," she said.

She even thought he might have stopped at a motel, so she drove from one to another, checking with desk clerks, showing them her son's photo.

Nothing.

Again she sped off through the darkness, even more afraid.

Samsun neared Laguna Beach about 1:35 a.m. Thursday. He had been walking for 2 1/2 hours when the red Nissan Sentra "came flying down" the southbound lanes of Pacific Coast Highway, according to the California Highway Patrol officer.

The boy stepped slightly into the right-hand lane, a witness later told investigators. The car struck Samsun; the driver made a U-turn and fled.

Phan had given up her search and was home by 2 a.m. The call came soon after.

"When the phone rang, I thought it would be him saying, 'Mom, come pick me up,' " she recalled Friday. Instead, it was Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian. She rushed to the hospital; officials said doctors were working to save her son. Samsun died at 3:45 a.m. Thursday, having suffered severe trauma from the impact.

"My son is gone. I lost my son," she cried Friday, held tight by Mary Letterman, principal at Mariners Christian School, which Samsun once attended.

The mother had no idea how popular her son was at Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School until Samsun's classmates gathered to mourn Thursday. She learned that he was a rare combination of brain and class clown. Along with everything else, he managed a part-time job and took computer and math classes at UC Irvine.

He was a founding member of Mater Dei's sailing club, was the football team's videographer, served in student government and even was on the wrestling team for a while.

-- Usually fewer than 50 students attend the regular lunchtime church service at Mater Dei; on Thursday, more than 200 packed the 125-seat chapel. Students and teachers alike stood during the Mass and told their favorite stories about Samsun.

He was a boy who had so many textbooks that he carried them in a combination backpack/rollaway suitcase--so he wouldn't have to make trip after trip to his locker. Friends called it his Samsun-ite luggage.

"Kids always react strongly when kids their own age die suddenly," said Father Steve Sallot, the Mater Dei rector. "Our kids are good kids, and there's automatic empathy."

When Sallot asked for students who wanted to read Scripture or serve as pallbearers at today's 10 a.m. service at Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach, he had to turn some away.

Students taped flowers and a memorial prayer on Samsun's locker, and they tacked a photo of him along with other messages to a wall on campus: "We will always remember your smiles, Samsun. We miss you."

"He just had a presence about him," said Linda Krall, retreat supervisor for the campus ministry. "Samsun added a lot of color to my life, and I kind of think he's smiling from where he is."

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