LOWELL (CBS) – Rhythmic prayer filled the glory Buddhist Temple in Lowell Friday morning where many offered fruit and other items for the souls of the dead – as is their religious custom.
But even the passing of a year hasn’t eased the grief of a grandmother.
“I remember every moment we spent together,” says a sobbing Heng Phouk through a translator. “I love them so much.”
She’s talking about her son Torn Sak, his longtime girlfriend Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children – 12-year-old Anthony, 9-year-old Ryan, and 7-year-old Sayuri – who all perished a year ago when early morning flames triggered by a faulty fan ripped through their apartment building on Branch Street.
Two other residents also died in what the State Fire Marshal called one of the worst apartment fires in memory. It was the state’s deadliest fire in several decades.
“I grabbed my grandson went to open the door,” says On Sak – the dead children’s grandfather. “But it was locked so I kicked it down.”
On Sak wound up saving two grandsons. Danny Sak, 15, and 12-year-old Bryan Sak now live with relatives. But after surviving and escaping the brutal genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime in his native Cambodia – this tragedy in the nation where he sought refuge has left him broken.
“The pain is something I just can’t explain,” says the quiet 63 year old. “I just can’t let go of the pain.”
Only a small makeshift memorial hints at what happened on the now empty, overgrown corner lot on July 10, 2014. The owner wants to rebuild here, and city officials are urging some sort of permanent marker to remember the dead.
In a city where almost a third of the residents are now of Cambodian descent – rallying around this family has bonded some diverse backgrounds. In addition to providing clothes, housing, and counseling support for families of the dead – several community groups lead by the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association have raised roughly $280,000 for 46 residents who lost virtually everything.
“As a community we’ve pulled together,” says Bopha Malone or Cambodian Mutual Assistance. “In a year we’ve become stronger and closer.”
“It just shows how much the people of this city care about each other,” says Mayor Rodney Elliott.
Of course, it is one thing to be proud of community’s response. It is quite another to heal the heartache of lives lost – as grandmother Heng Phouk knows all too well.
“To tell you the truth, there is nothing I want other than to have them back,” she says, “But that is impossible.”