LOWELL — Five gleaming white caskets draped in flowers and wreaths lay side-by-side Saturday morning in Glory Buddhist Temple — three children flanked by their parents.
Torn Sak; his longtime girlfriend, Ellen Vuong; and Sayuri, 7, Ryan, 9, and Anthony, 12, were killed in the fire that destroyed their Branch Street apartment building early in the morning of July 10 and left two other people dead. Two sons, Danny Sak, 14, and Brian Sak, 11, escaped.
“Today, two families are coming together to mourn our tremendous loss,” Ellen Vuong’s 33-year-old brother, Will Vuong of Philadelphia, said in his eulogy. “We’re building bridges between our families. . . . The most important thing right now is the care of Brian and Danny.”
Vuong thanked nonprofit groups and community members for their support, saying thousands of dollars had been donated to a fund set up to help care for the surviving Sak boys, though more will be needed.
Hundreds of mourners filled the room, chanting in Khmer and offering food and gifts to the temple’s monks. Relatives pressed their hands together and bowed before each casket, murmuring prayers. A group of parishioners from the Vuong family’s Philadelphia-area Catholic church also attended, singing in honor of the dead.
“It’s a very tough day, a somber day for all of us,” said Paul Ratha Yem, secretary of the board of the Lowell community group Cambodia Town. “It’s the greatest loss ever experienced in the Cambodian community, a whole family perishing in one incident. . . . We’re here to give a final blessing and send them off so they can begin a new life in a new world, a better life than what they’ve been through.”
Yem said the deaths have been noted throughout the American-Cambodian community, with services in honor of the dead being held as far away as Florida and donations pouring in from across the country.
Will Vuong remembered his sister as a devoted mother who loved to cook when the extended family gathered. He fondly recalled a Christmastime tradition of playing board games with her family.
“She was very caring, very strong, very warm — a great big sister,” he said in an interview.
Vuong said he relished his role as the “cool, out-of-town uncle” to his five young nieces and nephews, whom he described as rambunctious but loving. Each year, he said, his sister would send him and his parents meticulously organized and increasingly ambitious lists of Christmas gifts her children wanted.
“It would be this massive document,” Vuong said, chuckling at the memory. “I loved seeing it.”
Will Vuong said his family learned of the deaths when his sister’s co-worker sent them a Facebook message about the fire, asking whether they had heard from Ellen. The family began a series of frantic phone calls to relatives, friends, and officials seeking information.
“It was a very long three- or four-hour wait before we knew what happened,” Vuong said. “We were hoping for good news, but it never came.”
Danny and Brian Sak will remain in Lowell, Vuong said, where they have many relatives, familiar schools, and a large community to support them.
“They need that normalcy and continuity,” he said. “They need to be surrounded by people who love them.”
When the funeral services concluded, the caskets were loaded into five hearses and brought to Westlawn II Cemetery. There, after the caskets were lifted onto carts, several monks in orange robes led mourners in pushing the caskets in a wide lap around the burial site several times as they chanted prayers in a monotone.
After a priest led mourners in a quiet prayer, the family, led by the two surviving Sak boys, left single white flowers in front of portraits of each person set to be buried. Some kneeled or bowed to say a final goodbye, placing their hands tenderly on the caskets; others wept.
Finally, cemetery workers carefully lowered each coffin into a long trench they had prepared. The family will rest side by side.
In a touching scene, the chiefs of Lowell’s Police and Fire Departments approached Will Vuong and other family members. Faces ashen, and holding the dress uniform hats they had removed out of respect, the men offered their condolences.
“We were just expressing our sorrow at their loss,” fire chief Edward Pitta said, explaining that the family had thanked him for the efforts of firefighters.
Pitta said the deaths had rocked his department.
“It’s difficult, both physically fighting the fire, and then emotionally in the aftermath, dealing with the realization of what happened,” he said. “[The firefighters] absolutely take it personally. They can’t help but be affected by it.”
The fire also killed roommates Tina Christakos, 38, and Robert Downs, 72.
New efforts to reach out to members of Lowell’s large southeast Asian community about fire safety are underway, Pitta said.
Will Vuong said he supported those efforts, particularly if the fire could have been prevented.
“We need to make sure this never, ever happens again. A family shouldn’t just disappear like that,” he said. “My parents should never have had to bury a child. And my nephews should never have had to bury their parents.”