Honoring A Young Life That Ended Too Soon -- 20 Years Later, Friends Still Saddened

Twenty years ago, University of Washington student Nguyen Thai Binh was killed while allegedly attempting to hijack a Pan American flight to Vietnam. He had graduated three weeks earlier.

What was supposed to be his Vietnam homecoming turned into a bloody mystery that continues to haunt those who knew Binh at the UW.

Binh quickly became a symbol for a war that had much opposition.

"He held so much promise," said retired Professor Richard Carbray, who was close friends with Binh. "It was hard to handle his death then, and it's still difficult to handle now."

Yesterday, several of his friends and teachers met at the Student Union Building to memorialize Binh and to reflect on the craziness of the war and the passage of time.

Outside the room, orientation for new students - many born after Binh's death and the end of the Vietnam War - began for the summer.

Binh's death hit the front pages of all major newspapers. The clips were a startling contrast to how his friends describe him.

His college professors and friends knew Binh as a peace activist. He was the one always seen on campus carrying a "Stop the War" sign. An honors student at the College of Fisheries, he wrote poetry, but he could also box and play soccer.

"He was a fine student here at the university," Carbray said. "But student life was not his only concern. He wanted to see the carnage end."

At his graduation, the diminutive student practically stopped the ceremony and confounded then-President Charles Odegaard when he passed out anti-war leaflets. It was 1972.

It was a rough year for the UW. There seemed to be a protest or a march on campus every other day. Like those at other universities, UW students were increasingly opposed to the Vietnam War.

Binh made no secret of his opposition. He would carry signs on and off campus. He once made a speech at Volunteer Park and caught the attention of Anci Koppel, who was a member of Seattle's Women Act for Peace organization. She gave him a ride home.

"I still feel so much anger and sadness over this death," said Koppel, who attended the memorial. "I don't know which feeling is greater in me. But I'll try to put it aside and instead remember his goodness."

As the war escalated in Vietnam, Binh's activism increased. By spring, Binh lost his scholarship to stay for graduate work at the UW and had to return to his country.

He never saw his parents or eight siblings again. Federal investigators say Binh hijacked Flight 841 as an "act of revenge" for the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.

The plane had 153 people on board. He allegedly pointed a knife at a flight attendant and threatened to set off two bombs if the pilot did not fly to Hanoi after refueling.

Once the plane landed at Tansonnhut Airport in Saigon, Binh was shot five times in the chest by a passenger, a former police officer armed with a .357 Magnum. Later, it was discovered the "bombs" were lemons wrapped in tin foil. Binh's body was tossed out of the plane.

After his death, friends and teachers held yearly meetings for nine years. They stopped after friends and colleagues separated. Carbray said he decided to hold the memorial again so his friend's name would not be forgotten.

"I suppose life goes on," he said. "But that's not to say we can't remember somebody who was a tremendous part of our lives."