Northern Virginia

‘How Do You Explain It to a 4-Year-Old?' 9/11 Widow, Son Share Story of Loss, Hope

An Nguyen remembers something unusual about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: Then 4 years old, he'd just boarded the preschool bus when his dad came running out of the house

So many of the victims killed on 9/11 were parents, leaving behind young children who have only faint memories of their mom or dad. One young man in Fairfax County, Virginia, is making sure he lives up to his father’s hopes and dreams, and his mother has been at his side all along, helping him to understand his father’s legacy.

The Nguyens were a family that embodied the American dream. As children, Khang and Tu both fled South Vietnam with their families. In the United States, they worked hard, attended college and eventually both took jobs at the Pentagon. Khang Nguyen was a civilian systems engineer for the U.S. Navy.

"This country gave us, like, a second chance at life," Tu Nguyen said.

Khang Nguyen brought home a jacket from the Pentagon gift store for their small son, An, to wear.

An Nguyen remembers something unusual about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: Then 4 years old, he'd just boarded the preschool bus when his dad came running out of the house.

"My father, he just ran out of the door and he told me to just wave to him one more time through the window as I was departing away," An Nguyen recalled.

That was the last time he would see his father.

Tu Nguyen was not in in the Pentagon when the plane struck. Her fear grew with each passing hour that she could not reach her husband.

The following day, she went to the still-smoking building to see it for herself.

"I realized there are no survivors," she said. "I think Sept. 11 is the most fateful and tragic day in my life."

Both mother and son remember when someone from the Pentagon brought Khang's car back home.

"When An saw the car on the driveway, he looked so happy," Tu recalled. "He ran out to the car and jumped up and down. He tried to look for his father."

The family would keep Khang Nguyen’s car. His son would someday use that car to learn to drive.

'I'm So Proud to Be Your Son'

An Nguyen, now 24, says it wasn't until his father’s funeral on Oct. 6, 2001, that he realized his dad was gone. A photo shows him as a small child, clutching the flag that had been draped over his father’s casket, capturing the family’s intense pain.

"How do you simply explain it to a 4-year-old child?" An Nguyen asks. "It's heartbreaking."

But his mother says that she soon realized she had to be strong for her son.

"I had to overcome my sorrow," she said. "I have to be strong. I have to maintain my good health, because if something happened to me, who would raise my little son?"

An Nguyen says it took a long time for him to adjust to a future without a father.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he wrote a book called "Legacy Letters," where he wrote: "Dad, you are my hero. You are always in my heart. I’m so proud to be your son. I promise to be a good student and study hard so that when I become a man I will make you, up in heaven, happy and proud of me. Love, your son, An."

An Nguyen has lived up to that vow. He's finishing his Master’s degree in software engineering at George Mason University. He’s still working on the guitar; his very musical father gave him one when he was small.

And while both mother and son say they are greatly distressed watching what's happened in Afghanistan, An Nguyen hopes, as Americans reflect on 9/11, they will focus on understanding, empathy and unity.

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