Mom grieves after fire kills kids, mother during freeze
Family was trying to keep warm during power outage
After playing cards and spending time together by the fireplace, the tired family members headed to sleep, brushing their teeth and settling into bed as the Houston region descended into one of its coldest nights.
The family’s home in Sugar Land, like millions of others across the Lone Star State by then, had no power.
Edison, 8, went to the room of his 11-yearold sister, Olivia, which had bunk beds. The children’s grandmother, Loan Le, planned to sleep with the youngest, 5-year-old Colette. And the children’s mother, 41-year-old Jackie Pham Nguyen, headed to her room.
Those are the final moments Nguyen recalls about the night.
About 2 a.m. last Tuesday, Sugar Land firefighters responding to a fire reported by a neighbor found the family’s red-brick home engulfed in flames, said Doug Adolph, a city spokesman. The three chil
dren and their grandmother died. Nguyen, who reportedly had to be restrained by a first responder from going back into the house, and a friend were taken to a hospital for treatment of injuries that included smoke inhalation and burns.
“I just know that I woke up in the hospital,” Nguyen said Sunday.
Nearly a week after the fire, Adolph said there were no updates on the investigation into the cause of the blaze. The family had been trying to keep warm with a fireplace, according to earlier posts on their social media accounts, Adolph said. Temperatures that night dropped into the teens.
“Obviously they were trying to stay warm,” Adolph said at the time. “We can’t say that’s what the cause was. We just think we know they were using a fireplace.”
Loss for the world
In the days since the deadly blaze, Nguyen said, she has missed everything about her kids. The other day, she missed driving them to school. And at 4 p.m., she missed seeing them arrive home.
“Most of all, I think, what I will miss is just seeing them grow into these amazing human beings that I knew they would be,” she said.
A handful of years ago, when Nguyen went into labor with Colette on the day that marked Olivia’s birthday, excitement filled the eldest child.
“Oh my gosh,” Nguyen recalled her firstborn saying. “I’m going to have a twin sister.”
Colette was born a day later. Olivia had matured since, developing an intelligence and interest in a wide range of topics for an 11-year-old: the most recent election, history, law and activism. She believed in accepting all people, her mother said.
And sometimes, she picked up on nuances in TV shows even before her mom.
“I just felt like she was turning this major corner in life when it came to, like, character development,” Nguyen said. “I just knew she was just going to be this amazing human being that was going to contribute so much to the world, and I feel not just a sense of loss for my daughter but a sense of loss for the world and for society that she didn’t get a chance to do something meaningful with her life.”
The youngster was already looking out for others.
She baked cinnamon rolls for Santa on Christmas Eve, operating on the logic — since Olivia was 4 — that the old man might be sick of eating cookies. Plus, it could help make their home a memorable stop for him.
An adventurous eater, Olivia at one point spoke of becoming a food critic or traveling the world for a TV show. Nearly two weeks ago, for her mom’s birthday, she tried her hand at making a fried egg sandwich for breakfast.
Full of curiosity
Meanwhile, Edison, “sandwiched right in the middle of two girls,” as Nguyen put it, did not appear to suffer from any middlechild syndrome. Being the only boy in the house presented him a claim to fame of sorts, Nguyen said.
Active, he and Nguyen started running together over the last year. He also learned to ride a bicycle.
He was mildly autistic and loved arts and crafts, Nguyen said. He’d draw his family, as well as abstract art. A kind of obsessive personality guided his passions. If a line on a drawing did not come out as he wanted, he’d rip it up
and try again, his mother said. He wholly delved into his interest du jour.
In one span of months, art and architecture captivated his curiosity. Everyone he ran into would be met with a battery of questions, Nguyen recounted.
Do you like modern art? What kind of art do you like? What kind of homes do you like? I like homes with natural light. Do you like homes with natural light?
“He was super bright,” Nguyen said. “Just had a thirst for knowledge.”
Watching television or movies with him, though, could be a bit aggravating for his sisters, given his unquenchable thirst.
And Colette, the youngest, would talk to anyone who engaged, Nguyen said. She loved to sing and enjoyed performing for others.
Her charisma extended beyond her years. And being the youngest, she refused to be bullied.
“People just loved her,” Nguyen said. “I was certain she was also going to do something amazing with herself.”
And she loved others back. When the family got a golden doodle around the holidays, Colette became excited about having a pet to look after. She fed the dog and tried carrying the fast-growing puppy for as long as she could. Sometimes, she’d turn to her younger, furry companion.
“Giving the dog commands or just sitting there and petting him,” Nguyen said. “Just literally telling him about her day.”
Sometimes her one spectator was her grandmother, Le.
Le was a refugee from Vietnam who first moved with Nguyen’s father to Kansas then California before settling in the Houston area in 1994. She loved the three children and helped Nguyen have a career by helping out with them, she said.
She’d pick up the children at school or go grocery shopping and spend time with all three. Olivia would ask about life in Vietnam. Edison would show her his drawings. And Colette offered entertainment. Nguyen said her father died eight years ago, which was a tremendous loss for Le. But the children helped.
“She loved my kids so much. So much,” Nguyen said. “She loved all of their art. She loved everything they did. She kept everything.”
Nguyen expects to finish an MBA program at Rice University this spring. She credited her mother’s assistance with allowing her to progress in her career. After the fire, her community at Rice launched an online fundraiser for Nguyen and the children’s father, Nathan. Jackie Nguyen said she hopes to use the money to honor her children, either by starting a foundation or by giving contributions to existing charities.
Nathan Nguyen, a physician who studied at the University of Texas Medical Branch, wrote in a Facebook post: “Hi everyone. The loss of Olivia, Edison and Colette is unbearable and your love and support mean so much to me and my family. Many of you have asked what you can do. My sister has created this GoFundMe page to honor the children on my behalf. Thank you so much for your love and prayers.”
“This is a tremendous loss to my brother, their father, to all of us, and we are trying to live and deal with this unbearable pain,” Dr. Nguyen’s sister, Vanessa Kon, wrote on that site. Its aim is to create a foundation in the children’s honor to provide tuition assistance at St. Laurence Catholic School and to raise awareness about fire safety.
The fundraisers, which are separate, had taken in a total of more than $528,000 as of Monday evening.
Community offers comfort
People’s gestures have helped, Jackie Nguyen said.
“You feel like you’re drowning and you feel like you just can’t breathe,” she said. But the acts of those who’ve helped — even the kind words here and there — have been like going up for air. “It really speaks to, honestly, the heart of Houston — our ability to mobilize and for the community to come together.”
On Valentine’s Day, as the winter storm approached the Houston area, Nguyen and the kids watched the 1997 film “Titanic.” Olivia had been hating on the film after reading about it online. Nguyen wanted to prove it was an “awesome” movie.
They had to stop the film several times as Edison questioned plot holes Nguyen had never even thought about.
And why is a ship maneuvered one way or another?
“Can you just watch it?” Nguyen remembered his sisters responding. “Can we just watch?”
He restrained himself from probing too much, Nguyen said, and they finished the epic movie. Everyone loved it.
The following day, Le, without power since waking up, went over to the home early. She spent the day at the house, which still had power, with the kids and Nguyen.
Around 5 p.m., they lost power there, too.
“I told everybody they had to preserve their battery power in their devices,” Nguyen said. “We wanted to have some means of communication.”
Olivia had a Zoom call scheduled with friends from a summer camp she’d gone to in upstate New York.
She begged to use her battery power.
Yes, Nguyen told her. They used the fireplace to help stay warm and hung out with each other, spending quality time.
Time, Nguyen said, they valued.
As hours passed, and the kids tried to teach their grandma a card game, everyone grew tired.
Eventually, they all went to sleep.