Belfast Telegraph

Co Tyrone hero reunited with Vietnamese family he rescued

Linh Thi Thuy Spearing and her family with Healey Martin
Linh Thi Thuy Spearing and her family with Healey Martin
One of the crowded boats
Healey with two people he saved in 1979
Linh Thi Thuy Spearing and her family with Healey Martin
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

A Co Tyrone man has been reunited with a family of Vietnamese refugees he saved from a crammed, sinking boat in the South China Sea 40 years ago.

Healey Martin (80), 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 May 1979.

The father-of-two from Dungannon met with Linh Thi Thuy Spearing and her family, who were among those picked up by his ship, the SS Sibonga.

The vessel was on a voyage between south-east Asia and the west coast of Canada when the dramatic rescue took place.

Mrs Spearing, who now lives in Somerset, was seven when she and her family, originally from Ho Chi Minh City, fled the country after the end of the Vietnam War. Mrs Spearing was "lost at sea for days" with her parents and three young brothers, and said they were "blessed" to be rescued.

Last week they were among a group of refugees who flew to Northern Ireland on the 40th anniversary of their rescue to thank Mr Martin personally.

The reunion took place at Nightingale Nursing Home in Dungannon, where Mr Martin is now a resident.

Mrs Spearing said she wanted to extend a truly heartfelt "thank-you" to the man who will be forever remembered for giving her family "a new life".

"Through a miracle and a heroic decision by Captain Martin we were rescued from starvation, drowning or much worse," she said.

Mrs Spearing's mother, Trinh Le, described the rescue as a "scary, sad and horrible" experience.

She said Mr Martin was "very composed" and "remembered a lot of details" about the event.

"It was lovely and really emotional at the beginning, just to see him among all those people," she added.

"We got to see him as a family and say thank you. I wanted him to see his legacy - that he helped many people to give them all new beginnings."

In 2017, Mr Martin spoke to the Belfast Telegraph 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.

Mr 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 on board.

"It really distressed my wife Mildred. She loved those children, she cleaned and fed them," he recalled.

"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. 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," he added.

Shortly after the rescue they arrived in Hong Kong, but Mr 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.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph