LOWELL — On Sak spends his days alone and pacing. The fire that claimed the lives of his three grandchildren, his son, and his son’s partner on July 10 feels to him as if it just happened yesterday. He thinks too much.
“There is no time that I feel happy,” Sak, 61, said Tuesday through a translator. “I cannot bring my life back to before the fire.”
On Tuesday, Sak joined other survivors at Community Teamwork Inc. in Lowell to collect their final checks from donations that poured in after the early morning blaze tore through their Branch Street apartment, killing seven people.
Many have begun the hard work of moving on, finding new apartments and getting their driver’s licenses and citizenship papers reissued with the help of Community Teamwork, other charities, and the city. But, like Sak, some are still struggling with the grief and trauma of escaping the deadliest fire in the state in 20 years.
“I’m sure there’s a fair amount of post-traumatic stress that is present,” said Kristin Ross Sitcawich of Community Teamwork, who has coordinated housing and the disbursement of donations for the survivors. After the initial shock of the tragedy, she said, and the initial process of recovery — pulling documents together, moving out of a hotel — those who are still grappling with heavy emotional loads are left alone for the first time.
She said her sense was that “being by themselves in their own head is the worst place to be.”
The blaze left 46 people from 17 households homeless and killed On Sak’s son Torn Sak and his longtime partner Ellen Vuong, along with three of their five their children, 7-year-old Sayuri, 9-year-old Ryan, and 12-year-old Anthony. Robert Downs, 72, and Tina Christakos, 38, were also killed. The fire was caused by an electrical failure, according to the State Fire Marshal.
Ross Sitcawich said that most of the survivors are doing fairly well. Twelve of the households displaced by the flames are now living in apartments, she said. Sak is still staying in a hotel, he said, but is planning to move soon.
“I think things are moving along as they should,” Ross Sitcawich said.
Doss Tha, 51, arrived at Community Teamwork with her boyfriend, Odum Chaloeurn, 54, with a stack of thank you cards to hand out to the staff. She delivered each with a wide smile and a hug.
Tha lived with her 16-year-old son on the second floor of the Branch Street building. Her boyfriend was there the night of the fire. They escaped out the back door, she said, but barely: she ran barefoot through flames, and still has trouble breathing because of all the smoke she inhaled. She gestured at the black purse sitting in her lap: it was the only thing she saved.
“I was so scared,” she said through a translator.
She stayed for a while with an older son and his wife, but with help and financial assistance from Community Teamwork, she found a new place in Lowell.
It is a little small for her liking, she said, but she has furnished it with a couch, a dinner table, chairs and mattresses donated by the people of the city. She has a new wardrobe. Her son feels safer now. And she gets to eat the Cambodian food she prefers instead of the American food preferred by her older son and his wife.
“I would like to express my gratitude and thanks to everyone,” she said.
Still, Tha said she cannot sleep. She cries all the time. Her mind is stuck in the moment of her escape: the heat of the flames on her bare feet.
“I feel that those who die, how did they feel?” she wept. “It’s very hot.”
Visal Chin, the Health Education Coordinator at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell, who has worked with many of the survivors, said that some experienced depression after the fire, but have been heartened by the support they received from the community.
Many, he said, were very poor before the fire. Immediately afterwards, their situations were dire — but suddenly, he said, they had the backing of the entire city, and their needs were comprehensively attended to.
“They got so much help from the people,” he said. For some, he said, “their lives got even better than before the fire.”
He pointed to To Vath, 54, who was walking past holding his check. Before the fire, Vath said, he had no glasses, and so could not read. After the fire, he said, someone donated a pair. He held them up, smiling.
“I am trying my best to put things back like my life before the fire,” he said, before walking out the door.