Ernest Hooper: New book chronicles 10-year journey of attack survivor Queena

Queena Phu attends the prom last spring with date Derrick Perez. [Times files (2017)]
Queena Phu attends the prom last spring with date Derrick Perez. [Times files (2017)]
Published April 11, 2018

We've given so much empathy, so much support, so much love to Queena Pho and her family.

We feel like we know her so well we call her by her first name — Queena. She inspires, as does her tireless mother Vanna Nguyen, and her adoring older sister Anna Donato.

We ached when news first broke of the vicious attack against Queena 10 years ago this month outside the Bloomingdale library.

We celebrated when the family triumphantly declared she would now be known as the "Bloomingdale Library Survivor," not the "Bloomingdale Library Victim."

We marveled when they revealed her name and her infectious smile. Even after 10 years and countless stories, we still root for the family and hope for a miracle. We still celebrate their courage in the face of adversity.

And we will celebrate again when supporters gather April 29 at the Tampa Woman's Club to salute Queena's birthday (she turns 28 on April 22), and her survival. The Woman's Club has offered its center, East Coast Pizza will cater and Spunky Spirits will provide beverages.

But amid all the reflection, we concede this: We only can imagine the heartache and hurt this family has endured since the unimaginable struck down Queena's bright light. We've read a lot of stories, but surely there are episodes that have gone untold, pains held in private, despair too deep to discuss.

In her forthcoming book, Hope — The Anchor For My Soul, Nguyen reveals just how much they've endured, and just how much her religious conviction has lifted up her soul. Raised Buddhist, she found her way to Christianity in the HealthSouth Rehabilitation center where she first started on the road to recovery.

Nguyen has spent three years chronicling the family's challenges. It's a memoir that underscores the faith that has sustained them since April 24, 2008, the night convicted attacker Kendrick Morris raped Queena and beat her to within an inch of her life before leaving her to die an ant hill outside the library.

Amazingly, Nguyen did the most of the writing using the "Notes" app on her iPhone.

She's worked with two authors, and a family friend who helped edit her reflections to the most important essentials. Now she's seeking a literary agent to publish the book. She has big goals, hoping to see the book published in different languages so it can provide hope to the downtrodden around the world.

It's a story of love and forgiveness, and in it you learned more about the mother who has never wavered in her devotion to both her daughters.

"I see Vanna as a loving mother, very dedicated to her daughters and committed to telling her family's story," said Sharon Tubbs, a former Tampa Bay Times staff writer and editor who helped ghostwrite the book. "She has seen her share of struggles in life, including this heartbreaking attack on Queena, and somehow she found God's grace to persevere.

"She wants others to know that."

She also says one of the sources of her strength is her own perseverance. She was born in Vietnam and her father paid smugglers to help her flee the country on a fishing boat in 1981. She said there was a 99 percent chance they wouldn't succeed, and a 1 percent chance they would survive and reach Malaysia.

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She beat the odds, and eventually came to California through the sponsorship of an aunt. A refugee program gave her "$500 to start her life in the United States." She went to the grocery store and spent $300 on a care package to send back to her family in Vietnam.

Just as she clung to that boat so many years ago, she clings to the belief Queena's daily rehabilitation efforts will lead to recovery.

Nguyen divides the book into two parts — one covering the attack, the bitterness and anger that followed, and the eventual embrace of Christianity that continues to steel her today.

The second part details the progress Queena has made since she came home from the rehabilitation center in 2008.

It culminates with the re-sentencing of Morris, who was first convicted and sentenced to 65 years in 2011 but got a second chance in court in 2017 because of evolving court decisions that chiseled away at old laws governing how juveniles convicted of serious crimes can be sentenced.

Given another opportunity, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe issued a life sentence to Morris.

For Queena, for Vanna, for Anna, the struggle continues. Queena lives in the master bedroom on the first floor of their home, but her old room — brimming with pink decor — remains intact.

"I tell Queena, your old room is still upstairs," Vanna said as she fought back tears. "Your clothes, your things, it's all upstairs. You need to go back to your room.

"She keeps looking upstairs. She knows her room is upstairs. One day she will walk back up the stairs to her room."

A part of my heart will always ache for the family. But a part of my heart will also beam with admiration, swell with hope and overflow with admiration. None of us will ever fully understand their shared pain and perseverance.

That's all I'm saying.