Jeffrey H. Kass recalls that there was not a moment's doubt about what to do on the stormy night last year when he saw the Vietnamese father and son clinging to a life preserver in the heaving waters of the South China Sea.
Kass, a merchant seaman who grew up in the Prince George's County community of Camp Springs, jumped into the 10-foot waves and swam out to pass a line to Chua Quach and his 8-year-old son, who had been bobbing in the rough sea for two hours and later told Kass that they had been preparing themselves to die.
Quach and his son were among 86 Vietnamese refugees adrift for six days aboard a rickety wooden boat without adequate food or water when they were rescued by Kass's ship, the Rose City, on its way to pick up a cargo of oil in Indonesia.
Once they were hauled to safety, Kass dove overboard again to help a fellow sailor, Gregg Turay, whose lifeline was not secured to the tanker.
Kass was in Geneva this week, along with Turay and Lewis M. Hiller, captain of the Rose City, to receive the Nansen Medal, the highest honor bestowed for humanitarian efforts toward refugees.
"Of course, I didn't think about it, love," Kass said in a telephone interview yesterday from Geneva. "If there's a way to die, wouldn't that be the way to go? You've got to go sooner or later, eh?
"What I received and what we all received was certainly more than what we did," Kass said of the award, which includes a $50,000 fund that will go to help Vietnamese refugees in the name of the three men. "What we did was what we did, eh? Anything on top of just being able to help people was more."
Poul Hartling of Denmark, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said at the award ceremony Monday that the men's rescue efforts were particularly commendable in light of the practice of many merchant ships simply to ignore the pleas of boat people. Some of the refugees rescued by the Rose City said that as many as 10 other tankers had passed them by.
Kass, 31, who spends about half the year at sea and the other half raising organic vegetables and building a house on an island off Vancouver, British Columbia, said he was below deck on Sept. 23, 1983, when a lookout spied a vessel in distress.
The Rose City stopped, and the refugees scrambled to climb aboard the tanker, which was rising about 40 feet above their ramshackle wooden boat in the choppy seas.
Eventually, Kass said, the American seamen formed a "chain" to reach the 30 children on board the refugee ship. "As the little boat came up in a swell I reached out, and the Vietnamese men and women on the boat would hold the child in the air," said Kass. "I reached out and grabbed the arm and grabbed the baby and the boat fell back down. I put the child on my chest and tried to reassure them, eh? That was pretty heart-rending stuff."
Kass, who joined the merchant marine a decade ago, said he spends his spare time at sea reading classics. "He said, 'Oh mother, anyone would do it. They were going to drown.' " Lita Colligan
His mother, Lita Colligan of Bethesda, said her son wrote a detailed account of the incident in a letter home but omitted mention of his own role. She discovered that her son was a hero, she said, only when representatives of the United Nations called to try to track him down.
When she asked her son about the rescue, Colligan said, "He said, 'Oh mother, anyone would do it. They were going to drown.' "