Since he and his impoverished Vietnamese foster parents arrived in West Hills from a Philippine refugee camp nearly four months ago, 17-year-old Vinh Vo had dreamed of having his own clothes.
In his English as a second language classes at Canoga Park High School, he wore shirts and pants borrowed from a cousin the same age. On weekends, he borrowed tennis shoes from another cousin.
Vo would have gotten his wish this morning. Relatives planned to shower Vo--son of an unknown American serviceman and a Vietnamese mother too poor to raise him--with new clothes. An aunt his foster parents lived with in West Hills had laid out new sweaters, blue jeans, shoes and socks under her Christmas tree.
But instead of opening the gifts, Vo will be cremated with them in an ancient Asian tradition, relatives said Monday. Vo was among four Vietnamese teen-agers killed Friday when their car collided with an Amtrak passenger train at a railroad crossing in Chatsworth.
The other three also were Canoga Park High students. Witnesses said their car apparently was trying to beat the train to the crossing on Lassen Street a block west of Canoga Avenue. The vehicle’s driver ignored flashing red warning lights and swerved around two cars waiting at the crossing, witnesses said.
The other victims were identified as Truong Lam, 17; Quang Lam, 18, and Long Nguyen, 16.
All but Vo were pronounced dead at the scene after being hurled from the car, which was crushed and knocked 50 feet by the collision.
Vo died of massive head injuries following five hours of surgery at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.
His aunt, Hong Vo of West Hills, said she believes the four boys were rushing to do some Christmas shopping at the time of the accident. They then planned to go to a Reseda coffee shop that caters to Vietnamese teens, she said.
Hong Vo said the boys apparently cut classes about 10 a.m. Friday, the last day of school before Christmas. They were planning to meet her son, who often lent Vinh Vo clothing, when the fatal accident occurred.
The parents of one of the other youths, Truong Lam, were flying back from Bangkok, Thailand, and could not be immediately informed of the death, said a spokesman for a Canoga Park funeral home. Relatives of the other two youths could not be reached Monday by The Times.
Relatives said Vinh Vo arrived in Los Angeles after spending a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where one of his toes became infected and had to be amputated.
Jolie Ramos, a cousin of Vo’s who lives in Westminster, said the boy was fathered by an American serviceman. His mother, a Vietnamese, later gave him to another Vietnamese couple who were relatives because she had no money to raise him.
Vo’s adoptive father, who worked as a truck driver for an American company building military bridges and roads during the Vietnam War, was unable to get his family out of South Vietnam after it fell to communist troops in 1975, said Ramos.
Stranded in a nation whose new government had little sympathy for citizens who had aided a foreign army, Vo and his family sank into poverty. As a child, Vo sold cigarettes and lottery tickets door-to-door to supplement his parents’ meager income.
But at Canoga Park High, the youth flourished, relatives said. There, he was a well-liked, studious boy who played soccer and basketball and perfected his style in tae kwan do, a martial arts discipline in which he held a black belt, said Ramos.
“He was very athletic . . . very friendly,” said Ramos. “He’s a very caring person. He loved his parents. He knew his real mom. He called her ‘sister.’ ”
Relatives said that his parents, who are both unemployed but receiving welfare, plan to cremate him, partly because it is cheaper than burial and partly in accord with an ancient Asian belief that the dead will be reincarnated and again be in need of clothes, money and other earthly items.
“The night before he died, I asked him, did he ever see Christmas. He said that no, this was first time in his life,” his aunt said.
“He said he cannot wait until the 25th to open all his gifts.”