Belfast Telegraph

Vietnamese girl thanks Tyrone hero who plucked her from sea in 1979

By Cate McCurry

A Co Tyrone man has been reunited with a Vietnamese refugee he saved almost 40 years ago after she was plucked from a crammed, sinking boat in the middle of the South China Sea.

Healey Martin, who was captain of a cargo vessel, rescued more than 1,000 civilians fleeing Communist Vietnam after his ship came across two crowded boats in 1979.

The father-of-two from Dungannon was reunited with Ann Bates, who he rescued from a vessel that was leaking so badly the then 15-year-old was standing in water up to her knees.

The pair's emotional reunion after decades came when Ann discovered Healey was a resident at Nightingale Nursing Home in the town some time ago.

She travelled from her home in London with her husband to visit the man she calls her "hero".

"It was emotional meeting with Ann. I couldn't picture her because when I picked her up she was a young girl and I had no idea what she looked like," he said.

"While it was important we met, it brought back some painful memories. When she saw me she nearly jumped on top of me in the chair, she was like a live wire all day. We talked about everything, she was very excited and over the Moon to be here.

"It's a nice feeling to know somebody had survived, had a good life and was getting on well. She called me her hero."

The 79-year-old's ship was on a voyage between South East Asia and the west cost of Canada when the dramatic rescue took place.

He spoke about the moment the ship's crew spotted the boat carrying 600 refugees emitting distress signals.

Under maritime law, a ship that receives a distress call from a nearby vessel must provide assistance. Captain Martin and his crew of 47 witnessed heartbreaking scenes, including a young mother who slipped the body of her baby into the sea after it died onboard.

"It really distressed my wife Mildred. She loved those children, she cleaned and fed them," he said. "After we saw the first boat there was a second after that. They were all crammed in with no toilet facilities, no washing facilities. Half of them couldn't stand up.

"We had to put a box in a big net and put them in to the box to get them on the ship. Some were hanging off the side of the net.

"A lot of people wrote to me to say I did a good thing, but there were a few who said they didn't like what I did. I got some hate mail from people telling me that my company should have sacked me immediately for what I had cost them.

"Immigration in the UK is still a sore point with people.

"But these children were covered in their own faeces and urine and the boat and everyone on it stank.

"They all had to be cleaned and washed and fed. You suddenly go from feeding 47 to feeding 1,002 people."

Shortly after the rescue they arrived in Hong Kong, but Captain Martin was told that the refugees were unable to disembark. He was forced to anchor the ship for two weeks until his employers, Bank Line, sent planes to transport them to the UK.

Ann, who had travelled alone as a teenager, settled into life in England and worked as a nurse at a hospital near Dover. It was there she met her husband.

"Every Christmas she sends me a card, as it's around the anniversary of the rescue," Captain Martin added.

"She thinks of the date that they were picked up as her birthday. She has a good memory of what happened. There's a few others who I rescued that write to me, including a young girl who went to a convent in Colwyn Bay in Wales and they named her after the ship, Sibonga.

"It's a pleasant feeling and would be like seeing your own children passing their exams and moving on and getting jobs."

Captain Martin, whose wife died in 2014, is dad to Healey and Judith, who live in Bleary and Moira respectively. He said he and Ann will continue to stay in touch.

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