Family says good-bye to 3 who drowned off Hunting Island

The Spartanburg Herald JournalJuly 20, 2013 

CHESNEE -- Tiem Mok, described as the rock of his large, close-knit family, bought tents and supplied gas money to relatives just so they could all camp together at Hunting Island State Park before the children started school next month.

For Tiem's nephew, Mikey Phomma, 17, it would be his first time camping.

Mikey had been staying with Tiem, 38, and his wife, Samnang "Sam" Kim, for about three weeks and planned to enroll in high school and get a job in Spartanburg County. Relatives say the teenager had a rough life in Philadelphia, quitting school and having friends who were a bad influence on him. He had even been robbed at gunpoint recently.

"We were all very happy for him," Mikey's aunt, Vanthong Phomma of Philadelphia said of her nephew's move to South Carolina. "He called home and said, 'I like it here. I think I could do better here. I could start my life over.'"

Tiem wanted to show members of the extended family the beauty of Hunting Island in Beaufort County, said his sister, Tum Mok. Her daughter, Julie, 14, and Tiem's son, Nathan, 16, went into the ocean July 14 in the afternoon, the first day of the family's vacation, riding the surf with a small boogie board.

They were in the water up to their mid thighs or so, Tum said. The ocean was rough, and Nathan and Julie got caught in a rip current, which pulled them into chest deep water. Nathan began screaming, and Mikey went into the ocean to help them. Mikey couldn't swim, so Tiem followed, telling Sam to call for help.

Nathan was the first to sink under the water. Mikey grabbed onto Julie, holding onto her shoulder and then around her waist as she tried to stay afloat.

"She was trying to hold up Mikey," Tum said. Tiem reached the teens, and all three were pummeled by the waves. In the rough water, Tiem drifted from Mikey and Julie.

"They vanished, one by one," Tum said.

Tum, who can't swim and is always telling the smaller children to stay in shallow water on beach trips, lost sight of her daughter. She collapsed onto the sand, believing her oldest child had drowned, too.

Bystanders who didn't know the family braved the waves and went into the ocean, Tum said, but many were beaten back by the surf and couldn't reach Tiem, the boys and Julie, Tum said.

Julie almost went under with her uncle and the boys. She had grabbed Nathan as he went under, but she couldn't pull him up, Tum said.

Gasping for air, Julie heard a voice. Her father had told her while teaching her to swim years ago that if she got into trouble and got tired to float on her back, and that's what she did. Eventually, a man was able to grab Julie and carry her to shore.

The girl was hysterical.

"She was saying, 'It's my fault, it's my fault,'" Tum said. "She said she should have held onto them more."

"She's really beating herself up over it," said Sokhom Pal, another family member.

"I was speechless," Tum said of the moment she realized her daughter was safe. "I was happy because my daughter was there, but my brother and nephews were gone."

FAMILY SUPPORT

Pal, the Moks, the Phommas and a host of siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and grandchildren gathered Thursday at Tiem and Sam's home to prepare for a traditional Buddhist funeral ceremony.

Under the makeshift tent in the front yard, relatives from California, Philadelphia, Georgia, Louisiana, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Colorado and Cambodia sat and chatted at folding tables and chairs. In one corner of the yard, smoke rose from charcoal grills as steaks sizzled and were later served with rice and a spicy sauce of hot peppers, lemon grass, mint and basil. No one could leave the home without eating. The family just wouldn't hear of it.

That was the kind of generosity Tiem was known for.

"Even if he just met you, Tiem was very generous," Pal said. "Strangers became family."

Tiem and Nathan were always getting the family together and were known as the peace keepers.

Nathan enjoyed basketball and throwing the football. He was athletic and smart, never made trouble with his parents or teachers.

For Mikey, his aunt and uncle's home among green, rolling hills in Chesnee must have seemed like something new and vastly different from the cityscape of Philadelphia. When he got to the beach last Sunday, he was amazed by the white sand and palm trees.

"He loved Hunting Island when he saw it," Pal said.

Family members say they have many people to thank, including strangers who helped them after the drownings.

On Saturday, family and friends placed a carnation with a candle and incense in each of the coffins, to symbolize purity and overpower the darkness of death, Pal explained.

"It's like part of us going with them when they leave," she said. "They died together. And they'll go together."

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