Tragedy at Sea Kills a Reunion

Times Staff Writer

Muoi Cao's family and friends were looking forward to a reunion with him in August, when his Navy hitch was scheduled to end.

They were thinking about a party. After all, they hadn't seen much of Muoi since he had signed on with the Navy in 1985. His last three years were spent on the White Plains--a supply ship based in Guam.

The reunion was not to be. Cao, a 22-year-old Ventura High School graduate, was one of six sailors killed Tuesday when a fire swept through the White Plains' engine room.

"We were waiting for him," said Chanh La, a part-time landscape gardener engaged to Cao's niece. "But now he'll never come back."

It had been a long and twisted path that had led Muoi Cao into the Navy.

He and most of his family fled their village of Nhatriang in 1979. His brother, Quy Cao, had been a Vietnamese soldier fighting the communists, and the family was being hounded for his activities, family friends said.

Muoi Cao and six other family members had to leave behind his parents, who were too old for the rigorous ocean trip. They still live in Nhatriang, about 50 miles from Saigon.

The crossing from Vietnam to the Philippines took eight days, recalled Quy Cao. Fifty-three refugees were crammed into a 40-foot open boat.

Muoi spent two years in refugee camps in the Philippines before the family finally landed in Goleta, where a relative lived. They moved to Ventura shortly afterward. Muoi attended ninth grade at what was then DeAnza Junior High School and went on to graduate from Ventura High School in 1985. He lived with his brother and sister-in-law, three nephews and a niece.

"He was a good guy, nice and friendly to everyone," Chanh La said. "Everyone was so upset when they heard."

About a dozen relatives and friends were mourning in Quy Cao's west Ventura living room Tuesday night. Muoi's picture hung on the wall, as did a meticulous painting he had done of a Spanish-style ranch house with a tile roof.

"He said he would buy a house like that some day," said Muoi's niece, Loan Cao.

She said Muoi intended to re-enlist in the Navy, hoping for duty at a base in Southern California. "He wanted to help out the family and send money to his parents in Vietnam," she said.

Those who knew him described Muoi as a charmer with a quick wit and an easy laugh.

"He really took me by storm," said Elizabeth Quinn, a teacher of English as a second language at Ventura High School. "There was no language barrier as far as his humor went. He was a really great kid, really intelligent and really funny. He would play off everything."

His grades were good but not exceptional, Quinn said, and his plans for a career were still unformed.

"He was just a young kid," Quinn said. "He was going out, ironically, to see the world. But I don't think he expected to wind up back in southeast Asia."

The White Plains was in the South China Sea about 100 miles east of Hong Kong when the fire broke out about 2 p.m. Tuesday. It was heading home from duty in the northern Arabian Sea, supporting the Naval task force in the Persian Gulf, according to a Pentagon spokesman.

In addition to the six dead, five crewmen were injured and were airlifted to the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Whether the fire resulted from human error or equipment flaws on the 20-year-old ship is to be determined by an investigation, a Pentagon spokesman said.

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