E-Mail Campaign Leads to Church Rescue
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
People around the country are still trying to get in touch with friends and relatives from the Gulf Coast. Phone service is spotty and those who fled Hurricane Katrina have scattered in all directions. In our next story, we track the efforts of one resourceful woman in Arlington, Texas, who managed to save 300 members of her Vietnamese-American community in a neighborhood called Versailles in east New Orleans.
Twenty-eight-year-old Trang Nguyen is a civil engineer. Her parents left New Orleans before Katrina struck and made it to her home near Dallas on Tuesday. But they were worried about friends and church members they'd left behind, so they tried to reach them by phone.
Ms. TRANG NGUYEN: They started sitting there calling everybody they knew down in New Orleans, just dialing the numbers. They kept getting busy signals. And all of a sudden one phone number rang and someone picked up.
ELLIOTT: They had reached her mother's friend Tan(ph), trapped in Versailles. She and her neighbors were desperate for information.
Ms. NGUYEN: She said the water is really--and the sewer water, it was just disgusting. And she said that it's just up to their waist and they didn't know what to do. And then I saw on the news that day, you know--said that search and rescue, the water was rising and then I told them they needed to get out.
ELLIOTT: Once Trang sounded the alarm, the local priest went door-to-door and help them move about 300 parishioners to the church. But water was still rising, even there. Trang Nguyen then called the Coast Guard and got on the Internet, posting messages anywhere she could think of: The New Orleans Times-Picayune Web site, the American Red Cross. The e-mail found its way to Hung Nguyen of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans in Washington, DC. He reads us the message he received.
Mr. HUNG NGUYEN (National Congress of Vietnamese Americans): (Reading) `Vietnamese-Americans stranded at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church(ph) in Versailles, New Orleans. There are still approximately over 300 Vietnamese people stranded in sewage water up to their necks in many areas gathered at the church. We've contacted the United States Coast Guard, Red Cross, news media, but no help has come out to their way yet. As you all know, Versailles is so far on the eastern edge of New Orleans that by the time any helicopters come that way, they're already filled with people and have to turn back towards the Superdome to drop people off. We have been in touch with some of the people there through one phone, a land line in a residential home near the small church for the past two days, but no help still. Many of the people are growing weak and sick from lack of food and water, plus the heat. Some of them feel like they probably won't make it for the next day. Please, people, do what you can to get these people to safe land.'
Ms. NGUYEN: Whatever came to my mind first, I just did. I sent a map of the location of where they're at and coordinates--GPS coordinates of that location with the address, everything that I could think of that someone could pinpoint that location. And people just started calling in who had family members there. And I told them of the condition and we needed to get them out.
ELLIOTT: So you started this on Tuesday when you realized that there were still some of your families, neighbors and friends who were still there and who needed help.
Ms. NGUYEN: Yes.
ELLIOTT: And if you follow, like, the line on this e-mail that I have, there was a fire chief in Montgomery County, Maryland, who was trying to help.
Ms. NGUYEN: Uh-huh. Well...
ELLIOTT: There was someone in New Jersey at The Princeton Review who was sending out messages, trying to get you help. How did they respond when you first tried to tell them that help was on the way?
Ms. NGUYEN: They were really happy, actually. They were really, really happy and they thought that, `OK, we're going to--somebody's going to come pick us up.' And night after night, nobody came.
ELLIOTT: The e-mail campaign got the victims some national television coverage. Eventually, boats did come and moved some of the people in the church to a shopping area up the road, but left them there overnight. The next day, Trang Nguyen heard some news and sent another missive.
Mr. NGUYEN: (Reading) `I just heard that an 18-wheeler came and took half of the folks somewhere. Hopefully, they will come back and get the rest. Please pray, even if you haven't for a while. Pray; that's the only thing that's going to help us now.'
ELLIOTT: Those who didn't get on the truck were scared.
Ms. NGUYEN: Nobody else came back for them. And the thing was that they heard, like, some of the surrounding neighborhoods came out and they had guns and they were threatening them and then--and they're really scared this time with the thought that `They're not going to come back and rescue the rest of us.' But eventually we did hear that two more trucks came and picked up everyone. I'm happy. A little bit lighter on the shoulder but--and now we've got to worry about, you know, where they're at and hopefully everyone gets out OK.
ELLIOTT: You don't know where they were taken?
Ms. NGUYEN: No, we don't.
ELLIOTT: And you haven't heard from your mom's friend yet?
Ms. NGUYEN: Not yet. But I'm sure as soon as they can get to a phone or any type of communication, they will let us know.
ELLIOTT: Today, Trang Nguyen did hear more news, but the story isn't over yet. Some members of her family's church have been taken to the Convention Center in downtown New Orleans. She isn't sure where they're headed next.
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