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Three generations of Texans were trying to stay warm in the blackout when a deadly fire erupted

Jackie Nguyen stood in a room Sunday in Houston. Nguyen lost her three children, Olivia, 11, Edison, 8, and Colette Nguyen, 5, along with their grandmother Loan Le in a fire in Sugar Land, Texas, during the winter freeze Tuesday.
Jackie Nguyen stood in a room Sunday in Houston. Nguyen lost her three children, Olivia, 11, Edison, 8, and Colette Nguyen, 5, along with their grandmother Loan Le in a fire in Sugar Land, Texas, during the winter freeze Tuesday.Marie D. De Jesús/Associated Press

Like millions of homes across Texas on Monday night, the power in Jackie Nguyen’s house had been out for hours as she watched her young children try to keep warm by the fireplace and teach their grandmother the card game Speed.

That sight was one of the last things Nguyen remembers before waking up in the hospital on Tuesday. Around 2 a.m., a fire engulfed her Sugar Land home, killing her 75-year-old mother, Loan Le, and her children Olivia, 11; Edison, 8; and Colette, 5.

Only Nguyen and her friend Mai Bui made it out of the house. They were taken to the hospital with extensive burns, said Douglas Adolph, a spokesman for the city of Sugar Land.

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Nguyen, 41, had to be "physically restrained from running back inside" to save her family, he said.

The house fire is among the fatal incidents that unfolded across a large swath of the country, many in Texas, after a rare winter storm disrupted gas, water and power services. More than 50 people have died since Feb. 14 in incidents directly related to the weather, including fires, carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia.

Although the exact cause of the fire is under investigation, Adolph noted that fireplaces in the area - where winter temperatures typically hover in the 60s - are not meant to burn for hours or heat a home; they tend to be "small and aesthetic in nature," he said.

Nguyen said she can recall only snippets of the evening and wondered to the fire marshal when she asked about smoke inhalation concerns: "Am I going to get my memories back from that night?"

The family still has few answers nearly five days on. A relative speaking on behalf of Nathan Nguyen, the children's father, from whom Jackie Nguyen is separated, said the storm has slowed the investigation. And while the economic impact, political fallout and death toll is still being calculated, its effect on the Nguyen family has been immediate.

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Their father was in shock, barely speaking to anyone after learning of the news, said Vanessa Kon, his sister, who spoke on his behalf. He was initially in disbelief, she said, thinking the phone call was a bad joke. After that, Kon said, he was almost "zombielike."

"Nathan didn't want to talk to anyone."

At his Sugar Land home, pictures of the kids are on every wall. Still sitting on his kitchen counter Saturday night were the semisweet chocolate chips, marshmallows and snacks that Nathan Nguyen kept out for his children.

"He doesn't want to put it away yet," Kon said through tears. "He doesn't want my mom to come in and clean it up."

Jackie Nguyen and her mother sometimes disagreed over which of her children was likely to be president someday. Her mother imagined Edison, the middle child, who was gentle but "really audacious about the things he liked and believed in."

The 8-year-old had mild autism and a ravenous appetite for new information, his mom said. "'Why, why, why,' up the wazoo," Nguyen recalled. "My regrets are the times when I said, 'I'll tell you why later.' I wish I had told him everything now."

In her baby, 5-year-old Colette, Nguyen saw a future boss. Kon called her the entertainer of the family with a huge personality who never met a camera she didn't like; Nguyen said she has many drafts of TikTok videos to prove it. In one published on New Year's Day, Colette clutches a gold microphone on the stairs as she lip-syncs to Nelly's "Dilemma" and gestures like a veteran pop star.

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Olivia, 11, was "going through her preteen thing the past couple years," Nguyen said, adding that she nonetheless nurtured a tight bond with her witty, sarcastic firstborn.

"She was like an old soul trapped in this little pre-middle-schooler body. She was too cool for everything around her - including her mom a lot of times." Nguyen had heard through her daughter that the reputation of the 1997 romantic drama "Titanic" had dimmed among Gen Z, so they recently watched the film together. Nguyen said she was delighted when Olivia admitted to liking it.

She had envisioned her eldest growing up to be a writer, critic or activist of some sort.

"Everyone thinks their kids are amazing, but, objectively, they were amazing kids," Nguyen said. "And they would have grown up to be badass humans."

Nguyen described her mother, who emigrated from Vietnam, as "my rock." In pre-covid times, Le, 75, picked up her grandkids from school most days and insisted on making grocery runs for fresh fruit. The children kept the grandmother going after she became a widow eight years ago, Nguyen said.

She credits her mother's support with enabling her to take on a new job and a demanding executive MBA program.

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"She takes (the kids) everywhere, and she took them up to heaven to join my father," Nguyen said tearfully.

The family has expressed gratitude for the support of the community, acknowledging that friends and family who have stepped forward are themselves struggling with the ripple effects of the massive failure in Texas.

Two fundraisers in the children's memory have been set up by those close to the parents and have raised more than $400,000 and counting.

Kon established a GoFundMe on her brother's behalf for a scholarship program at St. Laurence Catholic School, which the children attended; both parents credit the support of the school community in the days after the fire.

The family is also exploring how to advocate for fire-safety awareness, Kon said.

"In Sugar Land, the people here are amazing. My phone is ringing all day long. They want to help somehow, some way," she said. Doctors who work with Nathan Nguyen have rallied around him, paying him visits at home.

For Jackie Nguyen, her workplace and her Rice University network have helped her navigate such basic needs as clothing and shelter as she plans the funerals.

Many of her business school classmates have children who played with Nguyen's in pre-pandemic times. Many in the program, including professors, got to know Nguyen's children through the Zoom sessions they would regularly grace as part of the family's "WeeWork" - the kid-friendly remote-learning space Nguyen set up in her home office.

Kim Raath, Nguyen's boss, has launched a fundraiser - "CEO for the Nguyen" - that Nguyen wants to see support causes that were meaningful to the kids: performing arts, autism awareness, and reading and literacy.

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Kon said the parents want to marshal the community's support into something that will honor the too-short lives of Olivia, Edison and Colette and keep their memory going.

“Nothing can bring them back,” Kon said. “But maybe we can help other people.”