clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


When Pan Am's last flight out of Saigon took off at the end of the Vietnam War, one Vietnamese employee stayed behind. Al Topping, his former boss, has fulfilled a 17-year-old promise to get him out.

Nguyen Van Luc and three of his daughters arrived at Miami International Airport Friday night."All of a sudden they came out the door and we just converged and embraced and cried. We're all crying, we're still all crying," Topping said Saturday.

Topping was director of Pan Am operations in Vietnam when Saigon fell 17 years ago. One of the airline's jets, crammed over capacity with workers and their families, became the last commercial flight out of the besieged city.

Topping, who was responsible for the evacuation of Pan Am employees and relatives, gained recognition for organizing a campaign that came to be known as The Last Flight Out. It was the subject of an NBC television movie of the same name.

When the plane left Saigon on April 24, 1975, Luc felt compelled to stay behind.

"His mother was too sick to travel and he had eight children at the time and he felt it was going to be very difficult for him to start new in the United States," Topping said. "So he decided to keep everyone behind and take his chances."

After a trip back to what is now Ho Chi Minh City, many letters to Congress and years of fund-raising, Topping made good on the promise.

"It is such great happiness to find him again," said Luc, 58. He was portrayed by Haing Ngor in the NBC movie.

Luc, who was the airline's ramp operations manager in Saigon, survived eight months in prison and made a meager living teaching English to feed his eleven children. After his mother and wife died, Luc decided it was time to find his old boss.

Luc and his daughters Luyen, 20, Lieu, 17 and Lu, 13, are staying with Topping and his wife, Jan, in their suburban Miami home. Topping is their sponsor for immigration purposes.

"Fortunately, I was still employed by Pan Am when I had to fill out all of the forms that showed my means of support," Topping said.

When Pan Am went out of business in December, Topping was out of a job after 221/2 years with the airline. Now, he's working part time for the Dade County school system while he looks for jobs for himself and Luc.

The Toppings and members of their church raised about $10,000 for Luc, but half the money was spent on airline tickets.

Luc said his journey hasn't yet come to an end. He still has eight children in Vietnam and will continue to lobby U.S. government officials for permission to let them join him in Miami.

"In the morning before going out and leaving the country, I came to see my wife's tomb," Luc said. "In my mind she is still living and she is still with me. In my mind she knows I have succeeded."