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Family mourns loss of parents, brother in fire

on July 9, 2013

In 30 years as husband and wife, Mearn Leepom, 56, and Bounkeo Viengvilai, 50, were inseparable.

“They never lived away from each other. They were together in death too,” said their daughter, Kerry Viengvilai, who is mourning the loss of her parents and her brother. All three died in a house fire Friday on 21st Street.

When the fire broke out early Friday morning, the victims were sleeping in a garage structure they had converted into a bedroom. The rest of the couple’s children were asleep in the main house.

The fire awoke the other family members and they ran out to try to help their relatives. But the fire was so intense they couldn’t get inside, said their son Southep Viengvilai, 27.

“When we came out of the house, the room was on fire. We could not see anything except fire and smoke. Some neighbors said that they heard a big noise, but we don’t know what it was,” Kerry said.

“The fire engulfed the entire structure. We tried to get inside, but the fire blocked the door. There was total panic. We thought they might have escaped the fire, but when the police arrived and pulled my parents’ bodies out we were aghast,” Southep said in a low voice, struggling to control his emotions and pointing at the site where the tragedy took place.

The couple died on the spot. Their son, Chandee Viengvilai, 28, was rushed to the hospital Friday in critical condition with severe burns. He succumbed to his injuries later that day.

The family came from Laos in the 1980s and had been living in the house for five years.

Leepom worked odd jobs, and Bounkeo Viengvilai took care of the family.

“He always gave us advice and taught us what is right and what is wrong. He worked all his life to support us,” Southep Viengvilai said of his father.

“She loved singing,” Tom Viengvilai, Bounkeo’s brother, said. “Every time she went to a party, she did karaoke though she can barely speak English.”

On Monday, relatives and friends gathered at the house to pay their respects. Some spoke to investigators while others sat inside the house unable to digest the tragedy.

“We are totally devastated. There are no elder members left in our family to take care of us,” Southep Viengvilai said. “We were a close-knit family and loved each other so much. We are struggling to cope up with the tragedy. It is devastating.”

Relatives are making arrangements to bury the bodies in Richmond. They’re asking for donations to help with the funeral costs.

Richmond fire officials said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

If you wish to make a donation, contact Tom Viengvilai at (510) 837-0347 or Keonoi Sypraseurt at 510-543-4382

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