A Song of Praise While We Weep
By Phuc An Nguyen
In the early morning of April 6, 2019, a tragic car crash killed four members of my family: my husband, Binh, our 12-year-old daughter, Lizzy, Binh’s adoptive mother, Diane, and her sister, Evelyn. It happened when the Dodge Caravan we were traveling in rear ended an eighteen-wheeler that was transporting steel pipes. Our 14-year-old daughter, Bethany, and I survived, but we were critically injured.
A Pleasant Night Drive
The tragic day’s saga began as our family of four left a rainy Seattle, Washington, on the afternoon of April 5. We flew to Austin, Texas, to meet up with Binh’s adoptive mom to enjoy a few days of vacation aboard a Carnival Cruise out of Galveston.
Our flight arrived a short time before midnight. I thought we were to get a rental car but was surprised to see Diane and Aunt Evelyn there to pick us up in Diane’s Dodge Caravan. Evelyn had a funeral to go to near Galveston, so she was going to take us to the cruise port and then use the van while we were on the cruise.
After gathering our luggage, we headed to the parking lot. Evelyn went to the driver’s door and insisted on driving. We gave in to her demand and got in, Bethany sitting in the left seat of the back row and Lizzy in the middle seat between Bethany and me. I buckled myself in and told the girls to buckle themselves in. Lizzy couldn’t find her seatbelt, so I searched and found it, pulled it down and clicked—but it missed. This seatbelt was different, and we couldn’t figure out how it worked. Thinking that there was not much traffic on the road at this time of night, and with night driving so pleasant, I left my daughter improperly belted as we headed onto the road. Then, giving Lizzy a little hug, I leaned to the side to catch some sleep. In the front, the three adults were talking and catching up.
The next thing I was aware of was Bethany pleading for me to help unbuckle her seatbelt. Unbuckling mine and reaching over to help her, I realized Lizzy was not in the seat she had been sitting in. Immediately, I thought about the fact that she had not been properly belted in. Expecting the worst, I looked to the front of the vehicle to search for her. My Lizzy was lying motionless, face down on the floor! The van’s headlights were shining on the rear of a black, eighteen-wheeler. The shattered windshield and smashed front reminded me of those horrific accident scenes in movies. But even in my stupor, I realized this was no movie or night mirage! We had crashed! My younger daughter might be dead, and the van could catch on fire at any moment! I looked to the driver’s seat, to Aunt Evelyn, and she was leaning over the steering wheel motionless, like Lizzy. I knew that she too might be dead.
After fumbling in the dark, I got Bethany’s seatbelt undone, and a man pulled her out through the broken window. He also helped me up and carefully maneuvered me between the aisle of the seats so that I wouldn’t step on Lizzy. As he pulled me out, we crossed over the second row of seats where my husband was seated. Urging him to hurry and get out of the van, I was unaware that he was not moving.
While trying to catch my breath, I heard Diane calling for help. I came to the passenger’s door to open it for her, but the door was jammed and would not open. The man tried to open it too, but with no success. Hearing the sound of a siren, I told Diane to hold on as the first responders were coming. Then, seeing Bethany kneeling with her head down to the ground like she was praying, I dropped down beside her. But instead of praying, we were both struggling to breathe. Laboring and gasping for air, we told each other to stay awake—not to fall asleep!
The first responders arrived and quickly assessed our injuries. Scissors tore loudly through my favorite Huskies’ hoody from the top down. An oxygen mask was placed over my nose and mouth. The cool air flowed into my lungs, and I felt relief. I was not going to suffocate.
The next memory I have is waking up at the hospital with Uncle Steve, mom Diane’s youngest brother and a twin to Aunt Evelyn. He asked me if I knew where I was, and I told him that I knew I was in a hospital and our van had crashed. He nodded and told me of my injuries: perforated stomach, three broken ribs, broken collar bone, and compression fractured L1 of the lumbar vertebrae. He asked what I remembered of the accident. I told him that Lizzy and Evelyn may have died, given the nature of the crash and how I had seen them. I asked about Diane. He shook his head and said she did not make it. She was severely injured and passed away in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. “I’m so sorry!” I told him, for in that accident, he had lost both of his sisters.
Uncle Steve continued: “Bethany is all right and is at Dell Children’s Hospital here in Austin, not far from here.” He told me of her injuries, which were similar to mine, and that the most concern the doctors had for her was the fractured L1 of the lumbar vertebrae. Since I was at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin, I assumed that my husband was fine and staying at the children’s hospital with Bethany. I asked how Binh was holding up, knowing that our daughter Lizzy, and his mom and aunt had died. Uncle Steve held my hand, looked intently at me, and shaking his head, said, “Binh didn’t make it out either. He died at the scene along with Lizzy.”
In that moment, everything went silent! Light had gone out. A thick darkness covered me.
Ringing in my ears to this day is Uncle Steve asking if I knew Psalm 23. I remembered it in Vietnamese and did my best to follow along. We said it together, slowly but firmly, as a statement of faith:
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Comforted by the Word of God, I drifted into a deep sleep. Uncle Steve left Dell Seton and went to be with Bethany.
A Comforting Promise
God is so good to give comfort in the midst of our grief. After having surgery to clean out my organs—a result of the perforated stomach—developed a severe internal infection. One day, as I had to wait a long time in the lab, I asked a nurse if she might print out Psalms 50 to 60 for me to read. She misunderstood my request and instead printed Psalm 119:50–60. The first line was “My comfort in my suffering is this: your promise preserves my life.” What a verse to bring comfort at that time! Overjoyed that the Lord had spoken to me through this verse, I began telling the nurse my situation. I told her about the accident, the loss of my loved ones, and the injuries. Stunned, she exclaimed, “Oh, my God! I’m so sorry! I can’t imagine what you’ve just been through!”
The truth is, I did not know how I was going to get through this. I had suffered so much loss and grief, beyond anyone’s comprehension—the loss of my husband and child, loss of my mother-in-law and aunt, and the loss of the health of me and my daughter. I also had many concerns and challenges to face: How would we live? Would the doctors be able to fix Bethany’s fractured spine, or would she be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life? What would be our “new normal” when we got to go home? The burials, how would be pay for them? But God’s ways are mysterious. Through the nurse’s misunderstanding my request and this verse, God was reminding me that I could find comfort in Him. Though our devastations and challenges were unbearable, I could trust Him and His promises. He is sovereign, good, and loving, and He would orchestrate everything to give us a hope and a future.
Many of my friends were shocked to learn what had happened to us and questioned why God would allow the accident to take the lives of my loved ones. I have no answer for them except to say that God has the right over His creation. We are not God and don’t know why He chose to bring my husband, our daughter, his adoptive mom, and his aunt to their heavenly home in such a tragic way. The Word of God in Isaiah 55:8–9 says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I don’t know—and I may never know “why”—but that does not change the outcome. I can go through pain and suffering only when I trust God and lean on Him, for He is a good God. I marvel at why my daughter’s spinal cord did not break when her L1 lumbar vertebra was fractured. How is it that her spinal cord was not damaged as the man pulled her through the broken window? Why didn’t my L1 lumbar vertebra not collapse as it had a compression fracture which prohibited it from any twisting or bending motion? How is it that my daughter and I could go through this experience of losing everything we held dear and not be bitter toward life and toward God? Where does such grace, peace, and strength come from?
Our answer is because the Lord God whom we trust is the One True Living God, and He is in control. He allowed the accident to take place, but He protected us, healed us, and is providing for us. He prepared a place in heaven for Binh, Lizzy, Diane, and Evelyn, and He has promised us eternal life where we will be with our loved ones again. The Lord provided the best place for my husband and daughter’s burial through the military at no cost to us. The celebration service of their lives was beautiful and honoring in the presence of over 800 friends and family who showed their love, sympathy, and support. God has given us the peace that surpasses all understanding which continues to guard our hearts and minds.
At the Two-year Mark
Since the crash, thanks to our Great Physician, Bethany and I have experienced both physical and emotional healing. Bethany has resumed her usual activities as any normal, healthy teenager, enjoying hiking, running, and swimming. She is a junior in high school, taking dual-credit classes to obtain early college credit. Involvement in Christian ministries has been a great outlet for my grief—cooking for the College Talk program through our church and participating in International Christian Fellowship. Daily prayer and fellowship with my Lord Jesus sustain me, as does the love and support of many Christian friends and family.
In 2003, when Binh and I married, he was not expressive with words of love. But he was a kind, sweet, and generous person, always ready to open his heart, home, and wallet for family, friends, and the needy. Binh had come to the U.S. in 1975, along with an older sister, with a group of orphans from the Cam Ranh Christian Orphanage in Vietnam. Because of his background, Binh always had a heart for the downtrodden. (Binh’s adoptive mother had been a missionary in Vietnam, met Binh in the orphanage when he was a toddler, and fell in love with him. Texas law did not permit her to officially adopt Binh until he was an adult, but they always considered themselves to be family.)
Proud to be an American, after high school, Binh joined the U.S. Navy where he served nine years as an electronics technician ET2 on the USS Ford. When his ship docked at Everett Navy Base for good in 1996, he took a new position as telecommunications manager at the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, where he worked until his death.
To honor Binh and Lizzy, each year at Christmastime, our larger family fills shoe boxes with toys for kids around the world through Samaritan’s Purse. We are comforted in knowing that—though not in this life—we will see our precious loved ones again in the next.
As Bethany and I and our larger family have traveled the path of loss, we are resting in God’s sovereignty. The Bible tells us that our God loves us so much that He gave “His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). So, because He did not spare His Son, but delivered Him up for us, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things—joy in our suffering, strength in our weakness, hope in our despair, and a song of praise while we weep?