The St. Paul children killed in one of the deadliest house fires in the city’s history “had something special,” a mourner said Saturday at a vigil as hundreds gathered to remember fonder times of a family now devastated by tragedy.
More than 200 people gathered at American Indian Magnet School, which 4-year-old son Mauj Tshau Ntuj and 5-year-old twin daughters Ntshiab Si and Siv Ntshiab had attended. The children died soon after they were injured in the Jan. 3 blaze. Their youngest sibling, 1-year-old Mauj CagTxuj Vaj, died three days later at Regions Hospital.
Many mourners brought bags of toys with action figures and stuffed animals to the vigil, ready to donate them to the surviving Vang children. They wept and embraced as they raised battery-powered candles in a moment of silence. One toddler — too short to see over the adults — stood on a chair, a candle held high.
Near a table with pictures of his dead children, Pa Cheng Vang thanked and embraced mourners — sometimes kneeling to hug children no older than his own.
His 3-year-old daughter, Hnab Qub Vaj, is awake and eating, Vang said. His wife, Ker Lor, and oldest son, Cag Kab Vaj, remain unconscious at the hospital.
Teacher Kirstin Jarvis spent time with Vang’s children in December, just weeks before the fire in the city’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. Jarvis recalled their curiosity and love of coloring but said she will most remember their kindness.
“They [the family] had something special,” Jarvis said. “They had a natural kindness that stood apart from the others in their class, even in pre-K. Generosity and caring, they had a compassion that you usually don’t see in 4-year-olds at that point.”
Mayor Melvin Carter said he knows the Vangs personally from the time Ker Lor spent as an intern in his office. Carter said he doubled over in sorrow when he visited the family in the hospital.
“It’s beyond comprehension,” he said at the vigil. Healing will take time, Carter said, as he urged St. Paul residents to practice fire safety and support neighbors in need.
“Pa Cheng, Ker Lor, our children, our neighbors, our classmates, our coworkers: We honor them by continuing to be each other’s source of support and love and encouragement,” Carter said.
St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard, City Council Member Nelsie Yang and Fire Chief Butch Inks shared similar words of consolation and asked the community to support the family.
During a morning news conference, Inks said the investigation so far suggests the fire was accidental and caused by an unattended candle. First responders found the mother and children unconscious and rushed them to the hospital.
Inks said responders did everything possible to save the Vang family that morning, and still the trauma will follow them the rest of their lives.
“We did everything we could that night, and sometimes the outcomes are not what we want them to be,” he said. “And we live with that. Our responders will live with that forever.
“It helps us knowing the community is so strong that we’re working together to heal amongst each other.”
Residents who want to donate to the Vang family can reach the Hmong 18 Council for information.