'Bomb bomb, go go': Vietnamese survivor recounts Houthi attack

By Le Tan   March 15, 2024 | 07:36 pm PT
Pham Van Thanh was conducting an engine check on the True Confidence after lunch when a deafening blast rocked the 57,000-ton vessel, sending tremors through his being.

Thanh, 39, was one of four Vietnamese crew members aboard the bulk carrier when it was struck by a missile launched by Houthi forces in the Gulf of Aden on March 5. Tragically, chief officer Dang Duy Kien, 41, lost his life in the attack. The other three, including Thanh, survived. Thanh returned home to Hai Phong in northern Vietnam 10 days after the harrowing ordeal.

Having signed on with Hai Phong Marine Services and Trading Investment company (HP Marine), which recruits crew members for foreign vessels, Thanh embarked on the True Confidence as its chief engineer in October 2023.

The Barbados-flagged, Liberian-owned bulk carrier, operated by a Greek company, departed from Egypt. The vessel then navigated through the troubled Red Sea and the conflict-laden Gulf of Aden en route to Asia for cargo loading.

In early February, the vessel docked in China to load steel and automobiles before proceeding to Jazan Port in Saudi Arabia. At the time, the ship accommodated a crew of 20, including four Vietnamese: Thanh, Kien, 36-year-old Nguyen Van Tao, and 33-year-old Phung Van An.

Assigned various tasks and schedules, the Vietnamese crew members often engaged in conversation during meals.

"It was then that I discovered Chief Officer Kien and I hailed from the same place, Hai An District in Hai Phong," reminisced Thanh.

Pham Van Thanh (R) tells his family members in Hai Phong details of the missile strike by Houthi forces on March 5, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tan

Pham Van Thanh (R) tells his family members in Hai Phong details of the missile strike by Houthi forces on March 5, 2024. Photo by VnExpress/Le Tan

Given the vessel's transit through high-risk areas vulnerable to pirate attacks, crew members received training in self-defense measures. The ship was laced with barbed wire and equipped with a fortified area stocked with provisions. Additionally, three armed guards were hired to accompany the vessel through the Gulf of Aden, an area frequented by Houthi activities off the coast of Yemen.

On March 5, as the True Confidence neared the Gulf, tension heightened.

"Though aware of Houthi strikes targeting international shipping in support of Hamas, we anticipated the focus would be on cargo rather than human lives," Thanh remarked.

Approximately 90 kilometers from Yemen's Aden Port, a radio broadcast warned that the ship had not been granted entry. Consequently, the Indian captain opted to alter course and resume the journey later, prompting crew members to proceed with their duties.

Around 11:30 a.m. local time (3:30 p.m. Hanoi time), as Thanh descended into the ship's lower bunker with An and another crew member, a deafening explosion reverberated, engulfing the vessel in black smoke. Clinging to the rails, Thanh and his companions ascended to the deck amid chaos.

"Screaming 'Bomb bomb bomb, go go,' we made our way," recounted Thanh.

The True Confidence is on fire following a missile strike. Photo courtesy of the Indian navy

The True Confidence is on fire following a missile strike in the Red Sea, March 5, 2024. Photo courtesy of the Indian navy

With sirens blaring and flames engulfing the vessel, the crew members sought to locate one another amidst the mayhem. Tao, unable to exit through the jammed main door, escaped through a window.

Surveying the scene, Thanh inquired about Kien's whereabouts, only to learn that he had sustained injuries and was being evacuated. As the fire spread, retrieving personal belongings became untenable.

As the fire raged, crew members assembled on the deck, preparing to abandon ship. Emotional distress was palpable, particularly among Filipino sailors mourning two missing comrades.

Guided by the captain, lifeboats were deployed, ferrying 18 sailors and three armed guards to safety. Kien was evacuated alongside his fellow crew members.

"We managed to carry Kien despite his injuries, while the rest of us sustained wounds," Thanh said.

With Kien's condition deteriorating, medical supplies were inadequate to save him. Thanh, fulfilling a solemn duty, documented his colleague's passing for the bereaved family.

After two hours at sea, the Indian Navy vessel INS Kolkata arrived. Survivors were rescued, marking the first recorded fatal attack as Houthi forces intensified strikes on international shipping in the Red Sea amid conflicts in the Middle East.

Subsequently, survivors were accommodated at the LeLaurier Hotel in the port city of Djibouti.

Amid ongoing investigations and procedural formalities, Thanh, having maintained contact with Kien's family, was resolute in extending support and facilitating repatriation.

Reflecting on the ordeal, Thanh, undeterred by adversity, expressed hope for safer maritime routes.

"I hope shipping companies would make itineraries that do not travel through these sea areas. I hope the world is at peace."

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