In an article that appeared in The Washington Post on Dec. 9, it was erroneously reported that Duc Vuong Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant, and his family had received $500 a week in welfare benefits. According to the Prince George's County Department of Social Services, the family received approximately $500 a month in payments -- $326 in public assistance and the rest in food stamps.
During the four years that Duc Vuong Pham was in a Communist "re-education" camp in Vietnam, he kept telling himself that he would flee to the United States and once again be free.
But after he and family arrived in the United States last year, Duc Vuong Pham found that freedom -- as he had known it -- did not exist.
He had been a pharmacist in Vietnam, but he could not practice pharmacy in the United States. He had been wealthy in Vietnam, but he did not even have enough money for furniture in the United States. He was a respected member of society in Vietnam, but here he was only a poor immigrant.
"He had a feeling of usefulness," Minh Trinh, a pharmacist who is a close friend of the family, said yesterday.
Two weeks ago, Duc Vuong Pham decided to end his troubles. He wrote two suicide notes, one in English and one in Vietnamese. Then, on Saturday night, he went into a bedroom and gave his wife and two sons capsules containing cyanide, telling his wife that the pill would make her skin softer. After they had swallowed the pills, he went in the bathroom and swallowed cyanide himself.
Duc Vuong Pham and his 6-year-old son, Quoc Uy Pham, died Sunday, hours after swallowing the poison. His 5-year-old son, Quoc Binh Pham, died yesterday and his wife, Le Hoa Nguyen, remains in critical condition at Doctors Hospital in Lanham.
For Pham, a thin, serious man who was a perfectionist in everything he tried, the transition to American life had, in the end, proved too difficult. The dream he had nurtured since his comfortable, middle-class life began to fall apart in war-torn Saigon eluded him; the easy success this country came to symbolize seemed a cruel deception.
Born in Nam-Dinh, a town southeast of Hanoi, the son of wealthy parents, Pham graduated from the University of Saigon in 1969, and began working as a pharmacist in the medical corps. His life was comfortable.
"He lived in a beautiful four-story house in Saigon," recalls Trinh. "He had beautiful furniture. . . . And he had lots of friends, people who often came to his house."
When Saigon fell in 1975, all that changed. Together with his brothers and sisters -- doctors, dentists and pharmacists themselves -- Pham was sent to a re-education camp.
Pham's relatives could not describe his experiences there, but Trinh said: "They try to brainwash you. It was like being in jail. But even then he always hoped he would get outside someday."
Released from the camp last year, Pham rejoined his wife and children, who had been living with his parents. Together, the four escaped from Vietnam in a boat. They carried with them jewelry, money and Pham's license to practice pharmacy. But the jewelry and money were stolen by "pirates," Minh Trinh said, while they were sailing to Thailand.
In Thailand, Pham spent 10 months in a refugee camp before boarding a plane with his family for the United States. They came to New Carollton because the parents and sisters of Pham's wife lived there, in a two-bedroom garden apartment on 85th Avenue.
Pham and his family moved into a two-bedroom garden apartment several doors away, at 5436 85th Ave., behind a series of discount department stores and drug stores. They slept on the floor because they did not have money for beds. The rest of their furniture was donated to them by charities.
Soon after Pham arrived in this country, he learned that he could not be a pharmacist unless he went to pharmacy school for five years.
"He was very depressed," said Trinh. "In Vietnam, after you go to school for a long time, you are set for life."
Several months ago, Pham began working 20 hours a week as a lab technician at Prince George's Community College. He earned $3.25 an hour.
"He was highly experienced," said Sandy Schmitt, the laboratory manager. "I thought myself that a lot of the things he did were beneath him. He was a hard worker."
Meanwhile, Pham was taking courses in English at the college, along with other foreign students.
"He was extremely intelligent, conscientious, and a very serious student, probably one of the most serious and applied students we had," said Barbara Schmidt, his teacher. "He was a perfectionist."
Pham's wife also was taking English courses at the college, and was working part-time as an aide in the computer department. Pham did not like his wife working.
"In Vietnam, the mother takes care of the family and the father goes out to work," Trinh said. "Here they could not survive if only he worked."
Once Pham and his wife began working, their support payments from the Department of Social Services were drastically reduced -- from $500 a week to $100 a week. Pham had difficulty understanding why they were reduced when the family was still so poor, Trinh said.
Pham did not want to spend the rest of his life working as a lab technician.
Although he hated the thought of spending five years in pharmacy school, he decided to give it a try. He applied to pharmacy school in Boston on the recommendation of his brother-in-law.
"They told him you have to produce a transcript," said Trinh. "He didn't have a transcript. All he had was his license, and they said that was not enough."
Trinh did not know the name of the pharmacy school Pham had applied to, but a spokesman at one of Boston's two pharmacy schools, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, said that immigrants are allowed to take diagnostic tests if they cannot produce transcripts, in order to be considered for admission.
By September, however, Pham was convinced he could never be a pharmacist in this country. He became depressed, and could not sleep at night.
"In Vietnam," said Trinh, "he had the respect of the society and his family. Here he only had the respect of his family."
Pham's sister, a pharmacist who fled Vietnam on a different boat, also lived in the apartment, but decided to move to California in hope of finding a better job.
Saturday night the family ate dinner together in the apartment before driving the sister to the airport. Five hours later, when his children and wife were ready to go to sleep, Pham distributed the lethal capsules and swallowed one himself.
Investigators later found the suicide notes, dated two weeks ago. One, written in English, was found in the bathroom. It began, "To Whom It May Concern," and simply stated that he had given his wife and children cyanide.
The other, a more emotional note written in Vietnamese, told of a man who saw no future for himself and who believed that he and his family should always be together.