By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
It was dark that Monday evening. The usual silence on Feb. 1 was about to be interrupted at the intersection of Fifth Avenue South and South Trenton Street in Seattle.
By 10:30 p.m., Sean Phuong, a refugee from the Battambang province of Cambodia, found his TV set destroyed, and he says that is not what’s important.
He and his wife, Sody Soeun, lost their house that night to a major fire, one that spread quickly from their two-door garage to their attic. They still don’t know what caused the fire, and an investigation is underway.
Their son, Prackserth “Patrick” Soeun, didn’t make it out of the house in time and died inside their garage. He was just a few weeks away from celebrating his 18th birthday in March. All that’s left are a few pictures of him, some taken inside the family’s Buddhist temple.
Phuong says his family never got to see or touch Patrick’s face. Patrick’s remains were completely wrapped before they were removed from the garage.
After the King County Medical Examiner’s office conducted an autopsy and a search of dental records, it confirmed on Feb. 5 that the remains were those of Phuong’s 17-year-old son.
Phuong says if he could change places with his son, he would instantly do so. That way, his son could further his education in college. He was 6 feet tall, shy, and smart, and he received good grades in math. He also had a talent for drawing cartoons and was excellent at using the computer.
“For three days and three nights, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat,” Phuong admitted. “In my brain, a million thoughts would come up. My heart beat slowly.”
Phuong believes that his son has reincarnated into a new life and all the gifts Patrick gave at his temple have now transferred back to him. He wants everyone to know that Patrick was a very good son, one who respected his family and never talked back to his parents.
“There was a loud bang as if someone had dropped a piece of furniture,” he said about the moment before he and five other family members escaped their burning house.
Jackie Schwendeman, who lives across the street, was the first to see the flames and ran over to pound on their front door. “She said, ‘Get out! Get out!’” said Channy Soeun, 9, one of Phuong’s two daughters. His other daughter, Sophary Soeun, is 21 and has two children.
Sody Soeun says she thought everyone in her family was able to get out of the house. She remembers those who made it out safely wore just the clothes they had on and without shoes.
The surviving family members, including Patrick’s 88-year-old grandfather Phann Phuong, now temporarily live with Sody’s brother. Sody is not working at this time.
Because of the current recession, Phuong says he will take any job that he finds. “I need to work. That’s what I need right now.”
He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1984 and moved into their South Park-district house in 1996 when Patrick was just four years old.
Donations of clothes have started to come in, but each family member is still in need of more clothing and shoes. They are also in critical need of personal hygiene products, underwear, and kitchen items. The Wat Sahak Khemararam Buddhist Association’s temple at 824 South 100th Street is accepting these donations.
Other drop-off locations include Pean Meas Video, off Martin Luther King Way, and the White Center Donut shop.
Members of the local Cambodian community have created a Bank of America account under Sean Phuong’s name, and all of its branches are now accepting cash donations to help with Patrick’s funeral expenses.
“I am very touched by all the compassion, generosity, and the kindness from the community,” said Phuong. “All of these were from people I know and didn’t know. I received compassion from the Khmer community as well as from non-Khmer communities.”
Many Uch, a Khmer community member who has known Phuong and his family since 1983 when they lived in refugee camps, said, “Sean’s been good to our family. He’s been good to the community.”
Uch cited Phuong’s willingness to play music with his band at a fundraising event for Cambodia at a pool hall.
“To me, that’s what a community should be, close-knit,” said Uch. “When a tragedy like this happens, we just need to step up and help out. Contribution-wise, even if it’s little, it’s so important.” ♦
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.