Last Monday, Jackie Pham Nguyen was grateful to still have power at her Texas home.
Her kids—Colette, 5, Edison, 8, and Olivia, 11—played in the snow that morning before coming inside for hot chocolate and leftover food from Lunar New Year celebrations. For hours, they played Bananagrams and other board games.
Their grandma, Loan Le, joined them. The 75-year-old, who’d lost heat at her own residence amid the state’s power failures, braved icy roads to take shelter at their Sugar Land house.
“Honestly it was an awesome day. We had lunch at home, hung out. The kids were excited that they didn’t have school because it was Presidents’ Day, and we just kind of had the news running in the background the whole time,” Jackie said. “The whole day, I felt grateful we were among the 10 to 15 percent of Houston that had power.”
When the lights went out at 5 p.m., the family was undeterred. They huddled together for warmth, Jackie lit the fireplace, and they continued playing games. Around 9:30 or 10 p.m., Jackie tucked the kids in bed upstairs and went to sleep in her room downstairs.
Four hours later, the house was in flames. Jackie said she doesn’t remember much about that night, except that when she woke in a hospital bed, a fire official informed her that the children—and her mother—were gone.
“After that, I couldn’t breathe. Even now, I can’t believe it. This is some crazy nightmare and I’m going to wake up any minute now,” Jackie told The Daily Beast.
“How did we all have this perfectly normal day and how did it end like this?” she said.
Authorities are investigating what caused the blaze, which comes amid extreme weather and a deadly power crisis across the state. Initial reports on social media suggested the inferno may have started from the fire the family lit to keep warm.
Dozens of people in Texas—and across America—have died in last week’s winter storms. The cold snap especially wreaked havoc on the Lone Star State, where millions of people lost electricity, heat and water because of the state’s infrastructure failures.
Among the dead are 11-year-old Cristian Pineda, who died of suspected hypothermia in his freezing cold mobile home in Conroe. The sixth-grader and his family came to the U.S. from Honduras two years ago. Cristian’s mother, Maria, has filed a $100-million wrongful death lawsuit against the state’s grid operator, Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the utility company, Entergy Corporation.
Houston mom Etenesh Mersha and 7-year-old daughter Rakeb Shalemu died from carbon monoxide poisoning after they desperately sought warmth in their car.
Andy Anderson, a Vietnam veteran in Crosby died of hypothermia while trying to get a generator running; he relied on an oxygen machine, which doesn’t work without electricity.
There are many tragic stories of loss, and likely more to come.
Vanessa Kon, an aunt of the Nguyen children, told The Daily Beast she believed officials should have been prepared for the power grid disaster.
“We don’t know what happened,” Kon said. “We don’t know why the lights went out like that. The city should have been prepared for it. Why was the power off? If the power wasn’t off, this wouldn’t have happened.”
For her part, Jackie hasn’t even begun to consider accusations of negligence against Texas power operators. “I’m in this triage sort of crisis mode right now,” Jackie told us from an extended-stay hotel. “I’m just waiting for what people have to say.”
Jackie said she spent two days in a hospital burn unit before she left against the advice of doctors. For several days, she still smelled like the smoke from her burning house, until she finally found a hotel with running water.
“I don’t remember a whole lot from that night,” she said. “I suffered from a lot of smoke inhalation. It’s kind of impaired some of my brain cognition. I’m really just hoping a lot of it comes back. Because I want to be able to piece all that together.”
Jackie remembers letting Olivia talk over Zoom with her friends from a New York summer camp that night, despite wanting to conserve energy on their electronic devices in anticipation of outages. “I’m grateful that I did let up a bit on that, so she could have that. So her friends could have that memory,” Jackie said.
She remembers the kids trying to teach Loan to play the card game Speed, but Loan wasn’t catching on. She thinks of little Colette, nicknamed Coco, suggesting they mix chocolate syrup with milk because they ran out of cocoa mix.
Jackie said grandma Loan lived just five miles away and usually never spent the night anywhere but her own house. Even during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Loan stubbornly chose to stay by herself. “I thought it was so weird that she didn’t even give me a hard time about coming over,” Jackie said of Monday’s sleepover. “I kind of wonder… if things happened that way so that she would be there. She would not have been able to survive knowing what happened to her grandkids.”
The grieving mom—who suffered burns and smoke inhalation from the blaze—said one blip is replaying through her mind. She recalls standing in the foyer of her two-story house and encountering walls of flames. She screamed for the children but didn’t hear them. She only heard the crackling of fire, the noise of the walls disintegrating.
She believes her female friend, a light sleeper who stayed over that night, dragged her from the home. The friend tried calling 911 but her phone wasn’t working, so she ran out and banged on neighbors’ doors.
“Obviously, as a parent, you question yourself, if you could have done something,” Jackie said. “The way it’s been explained to me is just: I’m lucky to be alive. There was nothing else for me to do.”
As Jackie tries to piece together what happened that night, she said she wants people to know who her children were—and how important their grandmother was in their lives, an unsung hero and the glue that kept the family together.
Jackie’s parents moved to the U.S. in 1981 from Vietnam, where Jackie was born. Loan and her husband, Cau Pham, were refugees in Malaysia before coming to California and later moving to Texas. Jackie’s three kids were first-generation Americans.
“If it weren’t for my kids, I don’t think she would have made it as long as she has,” Jackie said of Loan, adding that Cau died several years ago. “They gave her a sense of purpose. She scheduled everything around their 3 o'clock pickup at school. Or she did grocery shopping for us.”
“I can’t say enough about how much my mom was a rock to me and saving grace to my children,” Jackie added.
Jackie’s coworkers at the tech company Topl, and her cohort at Rice University, where she’ll earn an MBA this spring, launched a GoFundMe that has raised more than $278,000. Right now, the fundraiser is a placeholder for a future foundation to honor Colette, Edison and Olivia. (Kon also created a GoFundMe on behalf of her brother, Nathan Nguyen, the children’s father.)
All of her kids, she said, were wildly different “little humans.”
First-born Olivia was witty and sarcastic, and loved skiing and listening to Queen, Journey, and other classic rock music. “She’s very much an old soul—stuck in this middle-schooler’s body,” Jackie said. “She’ll tell me what songs are about. Anything she was curious about she would dive in. Every song, she reads the lyrics, looks up the history, the band members. She could have been on Jeopardy or some sort of trivia.”
The mother and daughter shared a special connection; both were the oldest in their families. “She was such a good big sister,” Jackie said. “It was a love-hate relationship [being the oldest child]. It’s a burden. It’s another way she and I related.”
Edison had just turned 8 in November and was a sweet, gentle boy who enjoyed art and painting and was eerily attuned to other people’s moods. Jackie said Edison was mildly autistic and has struggled with social tact, but he was also incredibly considerate. “He always could sense if I was sad or if I was stressed, or if I was worried. He would just check in on me—my 8-year-old!”
“I’d ask him, ‘Are you happy, son? Are you having a good day?’ The things we say to each other a lot were: ‘If you’re happy, I’m happy,’” Jackie said. “If you spent a minute with him, you just knew he had such a warm heart.”
Colette, at 5 years old, was a girly-girl and unapologetically herself—especially when making videos for TikTok. She even made and presented a PowerPoint show for Jackie’s birthday, with a slide that read: “Top 5 reasons i love mama.”
“She was constantly dancing and talking to herself, as if she’s on a live show,” Jackie said. “She was not going to accept her birth order. There was no way anyone was going to knock her around and bully her in anyway.”
But she was also very loving and affectionate, always hugging her mom or holding her hand. “Even when she looks at you, she looks at you longingly and deep into your eyes, it’s adorable,” Jackie said.
Jackie said she wants the GoFundMe money to go to causes related to performing and visuals arts, autism awareness, and reading and literacy—themes that speak directly to who her children were as people.
“They are amazing little humans and they would have grown up to be awesome, to really contribute and make a difference,” she said.
“This is the legacy I could do for them. This is the goodness they would have potentially done had they been able to live out their lives.”