The small Annapolis restaurant that Toi and Xuan Tran fled Vietnam to build was dark yesterday, its only bright spot the bouquets of flowers mourners had leaned against the glass door. People stopped by all day, their busy lives paused for a moment by the handwritten note taped to the window:
"Sorry - We are closed for a while due to the deaths of the owners."
Meanwhile, in a townhouse on a cul-de-sac in Alexandria, Va., Paul Boran was contemplating life without Ann W. Williams, 54, the woman he was to marry in May. "Everything is now in place," he said, "except that I don't have a bride anymore."
Williams and the Trans shared little except a cruel turn of fate: all were killed on U.S. 50 in Bowie Wednesday morning when a Bekins moving van veered out of control from a blown tire and crushed their vehicles.
Three other vehicles also were struck, and five people, including the van driver, were taken to hospitals with minor injuries.
State police said yesterday that investigators could take a month to piece together the complex sequence of collisions.
Cpl. Arthur Betts, at the College Park barracks, said early reports suggest that Alexander H. Hilton, 51, of Fredericksburg, Va., the driver of the eastbound Bekins van, lost control when his left-front tire blew, sending his truck over a grass median and though a guardrail into oncoming traffic.
Toi and Xuan Tran were on their way to Bowie to buy a new car. The 1995 Dodge Caravan the Trans were in had hauled their three children to school and soccer practice for seven years, and was showing the wear. Toi, 45, and Xuan, 37, were going to a dealership to look for a replacement.
They had not known each other in South Vietnam but left for the same reason: to escape the encroaching Communist regime. The new government took away Toi Tran's house, a family member said yesterday, and expelled him from law school. He bought a boat in 1977, and sailed for a better life, surviving for six days without food or water, according to a 1995 article in the Annapolis Capital.
Xuan Tran left on a refugee boat in 1983, her brother-in-law, Nghia Ha, said.
Settled in Annapolis
A church helped settle them in Annapolis, and they started their new lives with little. They met waiting tables at the Maryland Inn, a fancy old-line hotel in the historic district.
They married in 1989 and opened Saigon Palace that year. They turned a corner storefront of a strip mall on Taylor Avenue into a thriving restaurant on the strength of such American-inflected Vietnamese dishes as curried scallops and crispy rockfish.
The couple followed the steps of many immigrants into the American middle class, buying a house in Arnold, filling the garage with two cars, and giving their children English names: Christina, 12, Crystal, 9, and Christopher, 7.
Ha, who is caring for the children at his house in Severn for now, said all three want to return to their private school today. But he has given the school clear instructions. "I told their teachers, 'If they cry, call us.'"
About 40 miles to the southwest, Paul Boran's two-story townhouse in Alexandria's Kingstown neighborhood felt suddenly empty. Boran said he had met Ann Williams a year ago through an Internet dating service, and admitted that the picture she posted caught his eye.
He was a divorced engineering technician at a Navy lab in Washington. She was a divorced researcher at the American Health Care Association, a nonprofit organization in Washington.
By December, they were engaged.
Williams, a grandmother of two, loved riding through the mountains on the back of Boran's Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And two weeks ago, they had bought her first pair of ski boots, for a planned trip to Telluride, Colo., in January.
On Wednesday morning, she drove to Annapolis to watch her adult daughter, a member of the Annapolis Chorale, sing in a Sept. 11 memorial service. Williams then got on U.S. 50 to return to her job in Washington.
She never got there. When Boran saw the two Virginia state troopers walking up his front steps, his heart sank.
Preparations for their May wedding at a church in Alexandria had been at full speed. They had planned to visit the caterers Wednesday night to taste a wedding cake.
They recognized that fate was smiling when it united them so late in life. "We had our second life all ready to go," Boran said.