Dragon Star family reflects on the loss of eldest son

  • The headstone of Thai Chinh is seen last week in Blossom Hill Cemetery. Chinh drowned trying to save his two sons at Profile Falls in Bristol last August. His children survived. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Lam Diep receives a hug from longtime customer Carl Sica of Bow at Dragon Star Chinese Restaurant in Concord on Friday, May 12, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Thai Chinh’s son Willie, 11, and Willie’s cousin Sonya Chinh, 14, help out at Dragon Star Chinese Restaurant in Concord last week. It’s been about nine months since Thai Chinh died after diving into the water at Profile Falls in Bristol to save Willie and his other son, Billie. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Thursday, May 18, 2017

The grill at Dragon Star Chinese Restaurant in Concord was always run by the three men of the Chinh family.
They would stand in a row, side by side: On the right, Quy Sec Chinh, the family patriarch; on the left, his youngest son, Thanh Chinh; and in the middle, Thai Chinh, the oldest son. For the last nine months, the middle spot has been empty as the Chinh family learns to live without its eldest son.

On a fateful August afternoon, Thai Chinh noticed his two sons, Willie and Billie, struggling to swim at Profile Falls in Bristol and dove in to save them. His sons were saved, but Thai, who could not swim, drowned.

His mother, Lam Diep and Quy Sec Chinh still can’t speak his name without fighting back tears. Dragon Star employees and regular customers still hang their heads, lamenting the loss of a man everyone described as warm and friendly.

Chinh was recognized for his heroism by the New Hampshire Union Leader recently, a moment that has reverberated for the family.

After Thai Chinh’s wife, Phuong Luc, accepted the New Hampshire Hero award from the Union Leader last week on his behalf, Diep said she has been receiving well-wishes and congratulations through the mail.

“It’s painful,” Diep said, blinking back tears. “But it’s comforting, too.”

It’s proof that even though her son is gone, his influence at the restaurant lives on.

A good son, a good father

Family is everything at Dragon Star, a popular restaurant on South Main Street. The place is staffed by members of the extended family, who stay close even when they’re not working. Diep said every day off is spent together, and she currently lives with Luc and her two sons and her daughter. In the morning, she brings the kids to school and picks them up in the afternoon. Luc works at the restaurant, and sometimes Billie, along with his cousin Sonya, will help out after school, pausing homework to count out change for customers.

Diep said Chinh, who enjoyed the outdoors, wanted to take his family out for one last summer adventure on Aug. 26, 2016, before school started the next week. He’d never been to Profile Falls, but wanted to check it out, and brought his two sons and two nieces. His youngest daughter was only 18 months old at the time, so she stayed behind.

Diep didn’t go either – she was in Boston, picking up fresh food for the restaurant she and Quy Sec Chinh started almost 20 years ago. They’d left China to start a better life and be their own bosses. So when her sons decided they wanted to help out at the restaurant, she was pleased.

“They could have gone to work for other people,” she said.

Diep didn’t learn what happened until she came home later that day. She didn’t know her grandson Billie had fallen off the rocks into the 8-foot pools and couldn’t get out. She didn’t know her other grandson, Willie, had tried to pull Billie out, only to fall in as well.

She didn’t know her son, who couldn’t swim, dove in fully clothed to rescue his children, but it didn’t surprise her.

“He was a good son, a good father,” she said. “He cared for his kids and his family.”

Even though she wasn’t there, the images of what happened next still haunt Diep. She was told her son pushed his children up onto the rocks with the help of bystanders, but wasn’t able to get up himself, instead falling back into the water. Nearby, a Megan Lemieux called for help while her mother began performing CPR on Billie and the rest of her family went looking for Chinh.

“We’re so grateful to them,” Diep said, noting that she still communicates with the Lemieuxs.

Grief, support

After his death, the restaurant was supposed to close for three weeks while the family mourned, in accordance with Chinese tradition. But with six grandchildren and bills mounting, Diep soon realized that wasn’t possible, and the restaurant reopened about two weeks after Chinh’s death.

That reopening was hard, Diep said.

“We had to put food on the table,” she said. “These kids, they needed things.”

The family still struggles to find someone who can take Thai’s place behind the counter. It’s hard, Diep said, to find someone who knows how to cook the Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese food her family makes, and they can’t afford to train someone.

But with the reopening came more support than the Chinhs could’ve imagined – cards; checks for the children; and perhaps, most importantly, patronage, support that continues today.

“We were so pleased to read that Thai’s being honored as a New Hampshire Hero,” read a card from Bruce and Shirley Wilson of Concord delivered last week. “It was a privilege to know him.”

Bill Sica of Bow has been a longtime regular at Dragon Star. When he speaks of Thai, a shadow crosses his face.

“He was such a friendly, warm person, just like his mother,” Sica said. “He was smiling all the time.”

Helen MacDonald, a delivery driver for Dragon Star for the last 11 years, remembers talking about sports and politics with Chinh, and one time when he came to her aid to fix a flat tire. She said some days are harder than others, something MacDonald understands – she said she lost her own son six years ago.

But MacDonald has been with the Chinhs for a long time. She said she’s seen them bend over backward for each other; she believes their closeness will carry them through their sorrow.

“Sometimes (Diep will) break down and ask me what to do,” MacDonald said. “I’ll just say, ‘You have to cry it out. What else can you do?’ ”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)