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Left for dead by pirates: a Federal Way man's story of survival
In March 1989, Jeff Do and six cousins left Vietnam on a boat, heading toward a better life. Two days later, pirates from Thailand hijacked the vessel.
The pirates immediately took all women and children off the boat and presumably sold them into sex slavery. Do, who was age 14 at the time, witnessed the beatings and murders of every remaining male passenger. He watched through a window as Thai pirates killed the boat’s captain, who was his cousin, as well as the boat’s owner.
Among the last on the boat to be beaten, Do remembers waiting his turn. The pirates clubbed him over the head, broke his legs and tossed him overboard, leaving him to drown.
“They hit me six or seven times, then threw me in the water,” he said. “At the time, I thought, this is it, my life is over.”
Do said he played dead by staying face down in the water as long as possible, sneaking breaths until the pirates left. Minutes later, he climbed on board the now-sinking boat. The other survivor — the second out of 58 passengers — crawled out of a fish storage compartment.
The two lone survivors turned the boat back toward Vietnam. Their goal was to live, even if Vietnamese communists picked them up and threw them in jail. The next morning, they encountered a Malaysian oil ship that took the survivors to safety and medical care.
Participants on the ill-fated journey knew the risks associated with weather, food shortages and pirates. The fact that Vietnamese refugees carried all their valuables such as jewelry made them top targets for pirates. Even with a perceived 50 percent chance of disaster, Do said, the refugees were willing to sacrifice their lives in hopes of finding better lives.
The pirates were apprehended six months later in Thailand, he said. However, the experience left him with permanent physical scars as well as years of nightmares and anger. Shortly after his rescue, Do sent a postcard to the mother of one cousin who was killed by the pirates. Do later learned that when she saw the postcard detailing the tragedy, she died.
Do arrived in the United States on Halloween in 1991. He stayed with a Tacoma foster family for about a year before settling in Federal Way. For the past four years, he and his wife, Jenny, have operated Nails and Hair Creation at 1105 S. 348th St. in Federal Way.
Do, now age 36, hopes to someday return to Southeast Asia to search for relatives who were kidnapped on that fateful day in 1989 — including one cousin who was pregnant at the time.
More than 22 years later, Do said he has found a better life in the United States. In the long run, he wants to make enough money to take care of his family. And when looking at what he’s been through, he “tries to do better every day.”
“In America, there are opportunities for everyone as long as you work hard and don’t get lazy,” he said. “I survived. I’m sitting here talking to you. That’s a better life for me.”
The experience changed Do’s outlook on life, a life he no longer takes for granted.
“It made me stronger,” he said. “I was lucky. There was a purpose for me to survive.”