Chesnee family beach trip turns to tragedy

jennifer.arnold@shj.comJuly 19, 2013 

— 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 was going to 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. Family members say the teenager had a rough life in Philadelphia, quitting school and falling into a crowd of friends who were a bad influence on him. He had even recently been robbed at gunpoint.

"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.' He was inspired by Tiem and Nathan (Tiem's son, 16)."

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 Nathan went into the ocean Sunday 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 disappear 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 away 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 been able to grab 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 that 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 a huge tarp supported by wooden beams and rope in the front yard of their Elder Road home, dozens of relatives greeted other arriving family and friends, including clients of Tiem and Sam's nail salons. Sam is a nail technician, and the couple opened their first salon, Daisi's Nails, on California Avenue in 2008, about a year after the family first moved from Philadelphia to Spartanburg County.

Last year, they expanded the business to another salon, also Daisi's, in Boiling Springs. Sam works with clients, while Tiem bought supplies, cleaned the stores, did laundry and whatever else the shops needed. He also took the children to school and picked them up every afternoon. Tiem and Sam also have a daughter, Daisi, 12, and son, Dylan, 9.

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 then were served with rice and a spicy sauce of hot peppers, lemongrass, 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."

"He was the rock of the family," Tum said of her brother. "I could call him for anything."

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

"If there was a conflict in our circle of friends, Nathan would calm them down and stop the fighting," said Pal's son, Nicholas, who attended Boiling Springs High School with Nathan, who was a rising junior. "He was my best friend. We grew up together. He's probably one of the most generous, caring people you'll ever meet."

Although he didn't play organized sports, Nathan enjoyed basketball and throwing the football, Nicholas said. 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 paradise. Even just seeing horses or cows in the nearby fields was something new and vastly different from the cityscape of Philadelphia. Tiem and Sam had taken Mikey to Lake Monticello during his three weeks here, and 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.

Vanthong Phomma, Mikey's aunt, said she was thankful to Tiem, Sam and Nathan for being a good influence on her nephew.

"For showing him you can better your life," Vanthong said. "They were very supportive."

Vanthong and her sister, Mikey's mother, Khaekkeo Phomma, recently reunited with Mikey before he came south. They know the last three weeks of his life were happy with Tiem, Sam and their children. "We know he left this world happy," Vanthong said.

Family members say they have many people to thank, including strangers who helped in the aftermath of the drownings. Eleanor Huey stayed at the camp site, comforting the family and taking care of the children. Carole McGrath, Leila Rose and Cheryl Phillips, people they didn't know before the tragedy, also assisted.

Melanie Pruett, a friend of the family, helped by setting up a fund for donations to Daisi's and Dylan's college funds. Donations may be made to the Mok Family Fund at any First Citizens Bank branch.

Pruett also arranged for medical personnel to be on standby at the funeral ceremonies, which began Friday and continue into this morning. Tiem's parents collapsed at the beach from the shock after learning their son and grandchild had died.

"They took it hard, and the family is very concerned for them," Pal said.

Today, family and friends will place 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.

The rite requires white carnations, but florists have run out of white, and other colors will be used as well. So many flowers for so many mourners of three family members — father, son and nephew.

"They died together," Pal said. "And they'll go together."

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