SEATTLE — For Minh Nguyen, then 12 years old, the events of July 1978 were the stuff of adventure. First, there was leaving his home in Vietnam under cover of darkness, then boarding a small fishing boat with 50 other people and finally setting out into the South China Sea.
But for Georg Pedersen, those events were bittersweet. Serving then as the 44-year-old chief mate aboard the cargo ship Gateway City, his path crossed with Nguyen when the cargo ship rescued Nguyen and the other people aboard the foundering fishing boat, who were fleeing Vietnam in the wake of the Vietnam War.
RELATED: Local Vietnamese refugee to meet mariner who rescued him in 1978
Recently, through an incredible sequence of happenstance and hard work, Nguyen, owner of the Sealand restaurant in Fort Walton Beach (named for the company that owned the Gateway City), and Pedersen, now retired, again met face-to-face at Pedersen‘s home in Seattle.
"He brought me out of the sea and gave me a new life. ... He‘s just like a savior," Nguyen said as he sat at a table in Sealand on Thursday, recounting his recent two-day visit — along with his wife, Noi, and other family and friends — with Pedersen and Pedersen‘s wife, Nina.
"He opened the door and I just gave him a hug," Nguyen said. "He wanted to be the first at the door, waiting for me."
"It was an incredible experience, an absolutely incredible experience" Georg Pedersen said of the reunion. "We had two wonderful days with them, a real happy time talking. It was a lot — a lot — of fun, a real pleasure."
On the afternoon of July 13, 1978, the Gateway City was two days out of Bangkok, en route to Hong Kong when the ship‘s second mate spotted the fishing boat, a white flag waving above its deck. It was carrying Nguyen’s family and others desperate to escape the repression and economic hardship that descended on their country after the Vietnam War.
They were among the earliest of the "boat people," the estimated 800,000 people who would escape from Vietnam in the years after the war.
"As it came closer, we realized what it was — a boatload of Vietnamese refugees, which happened quite a bit at that time," Pedersen recalled.
As the Gateway City made a wide turn to come alongside the boat, the ship‘s captain called Pedersen to the bridge.
"He told me, ‘This is a pretty bad time for all these people, so I want you to go down and talk to them, give them all the food and fuel — whatever they need. They can have it because we have plenty of it.’ "
Moments later, Pedersen went down the cargo ship‘s gangway to meet the fishing boat, out of gas and drifting, and share the captain’s plan to provide provisions and send them on their way.
"I stepped onto that little boat full of people, sitting there in unsanitary conditions. There was very little place for me to stand there," Pedersen said.
"Try to picture those children," he continued. "They’d been sitting on that little boat a long time. They were out of food. They were out of everything. The boat was dirty and filthy, and these kids had been wearing the same clothes for days."
One of the boat‘s occupants spoke English, and he told Pedersen the story of the fishing craft’s days on the water.
"After that, I went up to see the captain," Pedersen said. "I said, ‘We just can’t leave them here,‘ and he said, ’OK.‘ ‘’
From that point on, Pedersen was given charge of the refugees. His first task, under the captain‘s orders, was to enlist the help of the English-speaking passenger in preparing a list of the refugees’ names and other personal information.
In the meantime, Pedersen was also informally documenting the refugees‘ time on the cargo ship with his Polaroid camera.
For the next few days, he worked with the rest of the crew to see that the refugees were fed, had clean clothes and places to sleep. In the process, Pedersen‘s fate became inextricably intertwined with the refugees’ fate.
"Over two or three days, especially with the children on board, you became very attached to these people," Pedersen remembered.
Once the ship made port in Hong Kong, arrangements were made by Sea-Land, the shipping company that owned Gateway City, to get them to a refugee center in the Kowloon section of the city. From there, Nguyen and his family would be sponsored by a Niceville church as they settled in Okaloosa County and began to build their new lives.
Until recently, though, seeing the bus recede into the distance would be the last that Pedersen would know of the refugees. It wouldn‘t, however, be the last time he would think of them.
"I remember the whole thing very clearly," Pedersen, now 86 years old, said Thursday. His memory is aided by the fact that he kept the list of names and his photographs.
"They‘ve always been on my mind, and I’ve always wondered, ‘What happened to them? Where are they in the world?’ "
‘And now I did’
In truth, Pedersen did a lot more than wonder about the fate of Nguyen and the other refugees. Among his first steps in trying to track them down, some years ago, was going to the offices of the Vietnamese-language newspaper in San Francisco, where he was living at the time.
In the days before personal computers and social media, the people at the newspaper were skeptical that Pedersen would ever find any of the refugees. In addition to coming to the United States, they told Pedersen, the Vietnamese boat people had made their way across the world, settling in places as far-flung as France and Australia.
And in fact, it‘s been only recently that Pedersen has been able to track down any of the refugees — or conversely, for the refugees to track him down. A first break came when the Pedersen’s next-door neighbor, who happened to be an accomplished genealogist, asked about one of Pedersen‘s pictures of the refugees.
Then, armed with Pedersen‘s 42-year-old list, she tracked down a refugee who had been 2 years old when he came aboard the Gateway City. She called him, walked with her cell phone to the Pedersens’ house, and put Georg Pedersen on the phone with him.
Another break — the one that linked Nguyen with Pedersen — came when Nguyen‘s cousin happened across a copy of "Sidelights," a publication of the Council of American Master Mariners, with an article telling the story of the 1978 incident.
The story included Pedersen‘s phone number, But Nguyen didn’t call right away.
"I had to soak it in before I reached out," he said. When he did dial the number, Nina Pedersen answered the phone. She handed the phone to her husband, Nguyen remembered, saying, "Georg, this is one of the kids you rescued."
In recent months, with ongoing help from a son of one of the refugees he rescued, Pedersen has tracked down 16 of the 51 refugees -- some of whom, like Nguyen, have visited him and his wife.
"I remember when they left the ship, and when I saw them driving away, I figured, ‘Well, I hope I‘ll see them again someday," Pedersen recalled Thursday.
"And now I did," he added. "It took a long time."
‘How lucky we were’
It was a few years after his rescue at sea before Nguyen would realize that his voyage in the South China Sea wasn‘t a boyhood adventure, but a desperate move away from what almost certainly would have been a dark future.
That realization came, he said, when he was safely in the United States and saw news coverage of the "Mariel boatlift," a massive emigration of Cubans escaping the island‘s communist regime.
"That‘s when I thought, ’How lucky we were,‘ " Nguyen remembered. And then, surveying the restaurant he owns between bites of lunch — the end of a saga that began with his first job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant — Nguyen marveled, "Look at this! We are here, and how crazy is that?"
And then, turning somber for a moment, Nguyen said, "The 51 people on that boat ... they owe Georg."
Pedersen‘s reward, in turn, has been meeting at least some of the people he took out of the South China Sea more than four decades ago. He and his wife, he said, immigrated to the United States from Denmark, so the refugees’ stories have a particular resonance for them.
"After all these years, you couldn‘t help but get a tear in your eye when you saw them," he said. "I‘m very proud to have helped them. ... It’s very rewarding to see people like that. They‘re successful, they’re in good health, and they‘re happy for being in America. That’s the main thing."