New Brunswick

After N.B. student disappears, parents beg Saint Johners for help with search

At 5:30 in the morning of his 20th birthday, Chi Thien Tran sent a text message to his parents, Thu and Thao Tran. One word: 'Bye.'

Chi Thien Tran, also known as John, has been missing since his 20th birthday on May 4

Chi 'John' Thien Tran, second from left, with his younger brother, Chi Nhan Tran Thao, father Thao Tran, and mother, Thu Tran. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

At 5:30 a.m. on May 4, the morning of his 20th birthday, Chi Thien Tran sent a text message to his parents, Thu and Thao Tran. 

One word: "Bye."

His father woke up, saw the message and immediately "realized that something wrong happened," Thao said.

"I tried to call him," said Thu, his mother, "but the phone didn't work. I tried to send a text message. After that, the police also tried to track the phone. They said they cannot locate him."

WATCH / A parents plea: 'We still keep our hope' 

Parents of Chi Thien Tran plead for help to find their missing son

6 months ago
Duration 2:48
Chi Thien Tran disappeared on May 4, his 20th birthday, leaving his parents a single-word text message: "Bye".

"I intended to do something, make something for his birthday. But I have no chance to tell him that," she said.

Thao and Thu arrived in Saint John just six months ago from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The move was supposed to establish their new life together as a family. Since 2019, Tran, had lived with a host family on the city's west side.

Tran's parents say that until any evidence of their son's death is found, they will continue to live in hope he is still alive. They are asking Saint Johners to join the search. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

"He stayed with us for two years," said Saint Johner Amy Brideau, who hosted Tran under the Atlantic Education International program. "He was a pleasure to have in our home. When he graduated from high school, he went to live with another Vietnamese family in the north end, then his parents had immigrated to Canada.

"We were very upset to hear the news."

In 2021, Tran graduated from Saint John High School, where his younger brother, Chi Nhan Tran, 16, attends Grade 10.

Tran at his 2021 graduation from Saint John High School. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

"We hoped that my son will have a better environment for study, and life would be better," his mother said. "We came here because of my son. He was here. We wanted reunion, to be a family. But now, he is not here, and my life seems to be stopped. My heart cannot beat."

Almost a month after his disappearance, "there is no information," said Thu.

"We go many, many places. We go every day from this neighborhood [to] Rockwood Park, Romero House, St. John River, Reversing Falls, along to the shore, to the forest. To see any information, any piece relating to my son."

His parents say their son had become isolated during the pandemic and seemed sad and withdrawn in the days before his disappearance. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

After searches in the north end, a clue on west side

Early police searches for Tran concentrated on the north end where the family lives.

He was known to frequent Rockwood Park, and police searches focused on the park, Parkwood Avenue, Thornborough Avenue, Magazine Street, Park Street, and Cameron Court, according to Staff Sgt. Sean Rocca of the Saint John Police Force. 

But on Tuesday, shortly after 8 p.m. on the city's west side, a resident walking on Bayshore Beach near Sea Street found a black backpack containing Tran's identification and called police, said Rocca. 

The area of Bay Shore Beach near where Tran's backpack was found on May 17. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The backpack was filled with Tran's personal items, money, ID, mud and seaweed, his parents said. It was found about 500 metres to the right of the parking lot at the end of Sea Street.

Additional searches were conducted on May 18 and May 19 at Bay Shore Beach and Sea Street, Rocca said. 

Tran is described as five feet three inches tall and 114 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. He may be wearing a black jacket, jeans and black Adidas sneakers. He sometimes wears his hair in a ponytail at the top of his head.

The recent graduate of Saint John High School was last seen the night of May 3 in the Parkwood Avenue area in the city's north end where his family lives. (Saint John Police Force)

'A gentle boy'

His father describes his son as a "gentle" boy who was "very sensitive" and enjoyed playing video games. He had recently been accepted into the computer science program at UNB Saint John, pending the completion of his English studies.

During the pandemic, said Amy Brideau, "he tended to want to stay on his computer and it was hard to get him to socialize with the family."

His parents also noticed he had stopped connecting with friends in the month before his disappearance. Other friends moved away. 

Thao and Thu are now left mulling over subtle signs they may have missed.

The family reunited only 6 months ago, after Tran spent several years with a host family in Saint John to receive his high school education in Canada. 'We hoped that my son will have a better environment for study, and life would be better,' his mother said. 'We came here because of my son. But now, he is not here, and my life seems to be stopped.' (Submitted by Thao Tran)

"Six months beginning in a new country — different things, different language, different culture, different environment. We are so busy with the [paperwork], with the settlement," Thu said.

"As a mother, I kept busy with new things. But he faced difficulties, he felt lonely. And I was not alert enough to help my son."

"He kept silent, sitting in a room," Thu said. "Before he was missing, he looked very sad."

Tran had become isolated during the pandemic, his parents said. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

'Please help my son'

Without any new information since May 19, the Tran family is overwhelmed by the vastness of the area to search. They feel stranded between hope and despair.

"As the mother, I feel two different ways. I still believe my son is still alive, just go to work, trying to find a job somewhere and work, and he will be back. I keep praying. I pray all day and night, I pray my son is still alive.

Until proof to the contrary is found, "we still keep our hope that he is still alive," the father said. "We will live with our hope. That's it."

The Tran family together in King's Square in earlier times. (Submitted by Thao Tran)

Although there is no indication he may have entered the water, Tran's parents worry that if their son has drowned, his body may be wedged somewhere inaccessible, like Partridge Island, where trespassing is prohibited.

Major crime is co-ordinating with Ground Search and Rescue out of Riverview, which has marine capabilities, Rocca said. However, ground search and rescue has not been deployed and no marine searches have been conducted to date.

The remains of missing New Brunswickers have been recovered in the water as far away as Digby, N.S. 

The Tran family and police ask Saint Johners to search, especially along the shoreline. 

The sandy, rocky coastline near Bay Shore Beach, where the missing student's backpack was found, connects to Partridge Island. (Roger Cosman/ CBC)

"My son's body may be stuck there. We don't have boat. Please help my son."

She also spoke directly to him. 

"If my son can hear me, and see his parents here, he will return to home, safety and healthy. I pray to Buddhism for him to be brought home," his mother said.

"Like a miracle he would be born again, and we would be mother and son again."

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If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at julia.wright@cbc.ca.

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