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Lowell fire hits heart of Cambodian community

LOWELL — In the heartbreak after the fire, Kowith Kret thought of the souls of his old friend's family — her son, his partner, and their three young children, killed Thursday morning when an inferno raced through their Branch Street apartment — and he knew how to respond.

"I said, 'Let me help you make one decision,' " said Kret, 60, recalling his assuring words to a surviving family member. "You are all Buddhist. Accept our community offer. I want to organize the Seventh Day Memorial Service.' "

That service, marking the period when Buddhists believe a soul can begin to move on from earth, is but one way Lowell and its large Cambodian community is coming to grips with the tragedy that killed seven.


Though many have little to give, donations of money, clothing, and food have poured in to help the survivors, including two boys who lost their parents and siblings. A collection box passed among bystanders viewing the ashes of the Branch Street apartment on Thursday gathered nearly $600 in change and crumpled bills. More money was raised on Friday.

"In Cambodia, America is paradise. It's where people come to make it," said Voop de Vulpillieres, deputy director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Lowell. "To have something like this happen — this is where people were supposed to come to feel safe."

The early-morning fire Thursday took the lives of Torn Sak, his longtime partner Ellen Vuong, and three of their five children: 12-year-old Anthony, 9-year-old Ryan, and 7-year-old Sayuri Sak. The family apparently became trapped in their third-floor apartment.

Two unrelated adults — Tina Christakos, 38, and a man estimated to be around 70 who has been identified by friends but not family or officials — perished in a third-floor apartment on the other side of the building.


The fire displaced more than 50 people, most of them Cambodian.

"A lot of people have good heart. They want to help out as best they could. That is our part, who we are," Kret said, standing inside the Glory Buddhist Temple where he said the Seventh-Day Memorial Service will take place. "The community will suffer, too, for your loss."

Buddhist Monk Tim Seouth said that mourners will bring dana, or offerings, to leave for the monks, and the "merit" of that offering will be sent to the souls of the dead.

Tim Seouth and other monks from the Glory Buddhist Temple offer solace to the survivors of the deadly fire.Joanne Rathe/Globe staff/Globe Staff

But already, community members are bringing offerings of a different sort for all of the survivors of the fire. On Friday afternoon, Buddheari Yem, 60, wrote a check for $100, collected nine bags of clothing and another check for $200 from his sister, and delivered them to the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. He has never met any of the victims.

"I feel it's my responsibility to help people," Yem said. "I feel connected in some way."

Yem said he felt his donation was too small, and he planned to volunteer to gather other donations.

"I want to give some more," he said. "So I have to spend my time to help."

De Vulpillieres said that aside from money and clothing, members of the Cambodian community have donated food — especially rice.

"In America, people bring casserole," she said. "In Cambodia, people bring rice."

There are around 30,000 Cambodians living in Lowell, a city of about 108,000, and de Vulpillieres said that Lowell is the second-largest Cambodian community in the country behind Long Beach, Calif. Many of them arrived in America in the early 1980s after the Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered at least 1.7-million people in the late 1970s.


Members of the community are united by the trauma they left behind in their native country, she said, and the shared struggle to build a new life in America. The fire, she said, struck in the heart of Lowell's Cambodia Town — literally and figuratively.

"This fire, it really shook a core here," she said. "We have a very tight-knit community. One person's problem becomes everybody's problem."

The Assistance Association, working with other city groups, organized a memorial service and fund-raiser to assist all families affected by the fire, which will be held Sunday in the Glory Buddhist Temple on Cambridge Street at 5:30 p.m. The Association has also started a GoFundMe page, linked on their website at www.cmaalowell.org/, and will coordinate social services for survivors.

De Vulpillieres said the Association also plans to organize a forum for the community, the fire department, and the city about how to prevent fires like the Branch Street blaze in the future. Many residents of the Branch Street apartment said they never heard fire alarms going off Thursday morning and were instead awakened by the smell of smoke or the screams of their neighbors.

"I think there's a lack of education, on one hand, of the importance of maintaining fire detectors," de Vulpillieres said. In much of Cambodia, she said, there is no regular electricity. "Then, the community's been a little frustrated, too."


On Friday, a small shrine of flowers had begun forming across the street from the gutted apartment building. Some community members said they were turning to their faith to help them cope with the tragedy.

Sitting cross-legged in the Buddhist monk house next to the Glory Buddhist Temple on Cambridge Street, Seouth, the monk, explained his role.

Globe correspondent Claire McNeill contributed to this report. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @EvanMAllen.