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Boat People Celebrate Rescuer

Eighteen years after he saved 96 people, a South Korean fisherman is thanked in grand style.

August 09, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Ninety-six people were crammed onto the rickety boat, the engine dead, adrift in the South China Sea, and they could see the ominous clouds of a tropical storm headed their way.

For four days since fleeing Vietnam the desperate refugees had watched the ships pass, 50 of them, hoping one would pick them up and take them to safety. They watched the 51st ship pass, resigned to another disappointment.

But 10 minutes later, something astonishing happened. The South Korean fishing ship turned around.

It stopped next to them and saved their lives.

On Sunday, hundreds of people, including boat people from other passages, gathered at a banquet hall in Santa Ana to honor the ship's captain, Je Yong Jeon.

"He has the biggest heart," said Peter Cuong Nguyen, one of the boat people and the man responsible for tracking down Jeon. "Without his rescue, there would be no today. We would have been dead."

Jeon, 62, his full head of hair still black, his face wrinkled from the sun, shrugged off the compliments.

"As a fisherman for 25 years, I've caught a lot of fishes. And during the 25 years, it was with God's grace that we found the boat people and were able to save all of them," Jeon said through a translator.

It was Nov. 13, 1985. Jeon, a captain employed by Koryo Wonyang Corp. for 16 years, was returning from the Indian Ocean with 25 sailors and more than 350 tons of tuna. Nguyen and the 95 other boat people, including a woman eight months pregnant, were stranded.

As Jeon's ship, the Kwang Myung 87, approached them, the captain could see people screaming and waving their shirts.

After passing the refugees, Jeon called the sailors together. They knew it was against company policy to pick up boat people, but Jeon told them he'd take responsibility.

The sailors discussed the situation and told Jeon they were with him.

The captain made a U-turn.

"It was the moment we knew life was returning to us," Nguyen said.

Jeon gave them dry clothes and fed them tuna for weeks.

Because picking up the boat people was against the rules, the shipping company fired him.

Jeon said he couldn't find another captain's job and survived through his savings and by helping out at friends' businesses.

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