CHELSEA (CBS) – It’s a story of salvation and gratitude.
A Chelsea man who made a harrowing escape from Vietnam 21 years ago is about to fulfill a dream.
Thao Le was just a toddler when the war ended. His father had worked with the Americans and had a tough time in the aftermath.
His family wanted out of Vietnam, but it wasn’t until 1991 that Thao took a chance, boarding a tiny, wooden boat with 22 others, hoping to get to the Philippines. But, a few days out, disaster struck.
“We hit a storm,” he says. “You’re looking up there and you can see the waves up there, a hundred feet up there.”
The boat was heavily damaged and leaking. The engines were out and most of their food and fresh water were swept away.
“I’m thinking, I’m ready to go, to die,” says Thao.
Drifting after the storm with the wind pushing the boat wherever it wanted, they didn’t even know where they were.
Hungry, thirsty and exhausted, they signaled any passing ship they could see, but none stopped, until a Norwegian tanker turned toward them.
“And we’re thinking, maybe this ship try to rescue us,” he says.
After maneuvering into position, the tanker dropped a stair to the listing boat and the suffering passengers climbed on board.
“We so excited, we think, we’re not going to die,” says Thao.
The ship’s captain brought them to China, where Le lived for a year. Then, he went to a refugee camp in Indonesia and was finally given permission to come to the U.S. He now lives in Chelsea with his wife and 2 children.
His gratitude to the Norwegian Captain stayed with him all these years and he vowed to find the man once again, and look him in the eye.
“I never gave up,” he says.
After years of hard work and a lot of luck- success.
On Thursday night, Thao flies to Norway to meet Capt. Heisen Lief with just one purpose.
“I want to say thank you. Thank you for saving my life 21 years ago from the bottom of my heart,” said Thao.
The two men will be reunited over the weekend.