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Community gathers to remember Lowell fire victims

Bopha Malone, president of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, consoled a member of the Sak family. Danny Sak (foreground), 14, is one of the two surviving children in his family.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Bopha Malone, president of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, consoled a member of the Sak family. Danny Sak (foreground), 14, is one of the two surviving children in his family.

LOWELL — The seven victims of Thursday’s deadly fire in Lowell were remembered Sunday night at an emotional memorial service inside the city’s Glory Buddhist Temple.

Hundreds of residents, many of them members of the large, tight-knit Cambodian community, attended. They lined up to remove their shoes before entering the packed temple, where they sat on the floor and chanted solemn prayers before a statue of the Buddha haloed by colorful electric lights.

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Addressing the crowd, On Sak, grandfather of the three children who died in the fire, pressed his palms together in prayer.

“You are all blessed,” he said in Khmer, as a temple official translated. “Thank you very much.”

The event doubled as a fund-raiser for families of the victims, and few came empty-handed. A large group of residents, many with envelopes and fists full of cash in small denominations, crowded volunteers collecting funds.

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“The people bringing donations, it was not the people you would expect,” said Voop de Vulpillieres, deputy director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell. “It wasn’t the wealthy, it was the poor of Lowell . . . people are giving everything they can.

De Vulpillieres’s group has raised $5,000 so far, she said.

Chhung Eng Seak said she did not know the victims, but came to the temple to donate the $40 she and her boyfriend scraped together.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

On Sak lost three grandchildren as well as his son and his son’s girlfriend in the blaze.

“People have a horrible problem with [the] fire. I feel sorry,” she said in halting English. “I give some [money], so later they can give it to [the families].”

The fire, which killed four adults and three children when it swept through an apartment building at 81-85 Branch St., was the state’s deadliest residential fire in two decades.

Thearan Sak, the younger brother of Torn Sak, who died in the fire along with his longtime girlfriend Ellen Vuong and three of their five young children, said the two siblings who survived the fire were hurting, but doing “all right.” The children are staying with a relative in a hotel room provided by the Red Cross.

Sak thanked the Lowell community for its support.

“It means a lot to me and my family that the community is touched by something like this,” he said. “You don’t even need to be a community member, you can be a total stranger. When something this bad happens to a family, it really hurts.”

Red Cross volunteers, some of whom had worked the fire, stood outside the temple, handing out tissues and water, and giving long hugs to attendees. Some volunteers said they drew strength from the resilience of Torn Sak’s surviving 11-year-old son.

The morning of the fire he was offered a toy by a Red Cross worker but declined, saying he was too old, said Red Cross volunteer Mary-Jane Gardner, retelling a story passed from volunteer to volunteer.

Then the worker offered him socks — the boy fled the fire barefoot — and he accepted, thanking the worker profusely and explaining that his mother had taught him to always say “thank you” when someone gave him something.

“That’s going to stay with me for a long time,” Gardner said.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fast-moving blaze, and state Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said they are looking into reports from residents and neighbors that fireworks went off as the building burned.

The fire is quickly becoming a unifying moment for the Cambodian community.

“I think the community is realizing that we are stronger than we thought,” said Sovanna Pouv, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. “It’s unfortunate it took a tragedy to bring people together, but when people are together, we can do a lot of wonderful things.”

Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott (right) spoke with Thearan Sak, who lost his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and three of the couple’s five children in Thursday’s fire.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott (right) spoke with Thearan Sak, who lost his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, and three of the couple’s five children in Thursday’s fire.

Pouv said younger Cambodians who had become somewhat estranged from their parents’ culture have approached the group, seeking to help and reconnect. “They want to learn about what we’re doing,” he said. “It has made them realize how important our community is, and puts a bridge between the generations.”

The fire has also prompted bridge-building between Lowell nonprofits. On Monday, several Cambodian groups, the Red Cross, and representatives of various city agencies will meet to better coordinate their response.

Their challenges range from finding long-term housing for dozens of people to helping residents who lost driver’s licenses and other important documents that were destroyed in the fire. Missing paperwork makes it difficult to access badly needed services.

“It’s great to have big events like this, the showing of support, but the rubber needs to meet the road,” de Vulpillieres said. “Things can’t fall through the cracks.”

The first wave of Cambodian immigrants to Lowell arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s after fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that slaughtered at least 1.7 million people. That experience continues to shape the community, sometimes in ways that make offering help more challenging.

“People didn’t come here because the wanted to, they came here because they had to,” de Vulpillieres said, noting Cambodians are one of the newer immigrant groups to arrive in the United States.

Leaders of the Cambodian community have played a key role in relief efforts, as five of the deceased and many of the building’s now-homeless residents were Cambodian.

High-ranking officials, including Governor Deval Patrick, state Treasurer and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Grossman, and Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott also attended the memorial.

Elliott said the service was an opportunity to mourn, heal, and reaffirm the resilience of Lowell.

“We want to show the strength of our city,” he said.

Elliott said the famously diverse city draws particular strength from its Cambodian community, whose members run many small businesses and contribute heavily to Lowell’s cultural richness.

The city, he said, will continue an aggressive two-year-old code-enforcement effort. But, he argued, state lawmakers should reform a statute that allows older buildings to be “grandfathered in,” or made exempt from contemporary fire code requirements.

“We should look at some middle ground in terms of putting sprinklers in these older buildings that, clearly, the residents would benefit from,” he said. “You can’t put a cost on the saving of human lives.”

The fire will be long remembered in Lowell, Elliott said.

“The city will never forget this tragedy,” he said. “There’s a somber mood across the city.”

Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott addressed attendees of a memorial service for the victims of Thursday’s fire.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott addressed attendees of a memorial service for the victims of Thursday’s fire.

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.
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