Inside the burning home, all St. Paul firefighter Jake Ryks could see through the smoke was the faint glow of flames licking up the living room wall.
As Ryks forced open the front door, his radio crackled with news that there could be someone inside the house on Arkwright Street N.
“At that time, I chose to forgo standard practice, and I entered the house alone,” said Ryks, standing in a long line of firefighters and first responders on Saturday morning, recalling a night none of them can forget.
He was standing at the Vang family’s front door. Home to a young mother and father and their six small children, ages 1 through 6.
Beyond the burning living room was a hallway leading to the bedrooms. Ryks checked the bedroom on the right and found a child, who he scooped up and carried to the arms of another firefighter by the door.
Retracing his steps, he located another child. And another, on top of the bunk bed.
By then, the yard was full of flashing lights and rescue crews working desperately to save the children and their mother. Ryks carried the third child for a block until he found an EMS crew with space and performed CPR until they could transport the little one to the hospital. Then he walked back toward the house to see how else he could help.
No one could have done more than the firefighters of St. Paul did that night.
Fire Chief Butch Inks tells them that. The doctors tell them. The anguished Vang family thanked them.
But four of the six Vang children have died from their injuries. Five-year-old twin girls Ntshiab Si and Siv Ntshiab. Their 4-year-old brother, Mauj Tshau Ntuj. And the baby, Mauj CagTxuj Vaj, just a year old.
Their mother, Ker Lor,remains hospitalized, along with her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
Their father, Pa Cheng Vang, was at work that night when an unattended candle apparently started the fire. Day after day, he has shuttled between hospitals and hospital beds, posting heartbreaking updates on social media.
“My youngest son … started his journey with his two sisters and older brother to meet grandma on the other side,” Vang shared on Facebook this week. A few posts below, there was a video of the baby, bouncing and giggling, and a photo of the family, snuggling on the couch, ready for the new year. “I pray they will be happy and enjoy each other.”
The tragedy sparked an outpouring of grief and generosity. An entire community grieved and hugged their little ones a little bit tighter at the news.
An online fundraiser for the family had raised more than $460,000. Donations poured in from around the country and as far away as Thailand.
On Saturday, the firefighters of St. Paul gathered to walk through the events of that awful night. A night when everyone did absolutely everything they could. The first fire truck arrived within 4 minutes of the first call for help. Within 5 minutes, there were five fire trucks. In all, 63 emergency responders worked to save the Vang family that night.
Some stepped up to describe the scene minute by minute. Ladder Company 22, first to arrive, battled the flames and reached the children in the other bedroom. Rescue Squad Capt. Joel Waters and his team found Ker Lor.
St. Paul lost more lives to the Jan. 3 fire than all the fire deaths of 2023, and it hurts.
“All of us are reeling,” said Assistant Chief Steve Sampson of the EMS division.
No one could have done more.
But the firefighters still wished there was more they could do.
“The crews who responded, the next day, the next morning, they were wanting to know how we could help the family,” said Mike Smith, president of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21. “These firefighters are never going to forget. A lot of them have kids of their own that same age.”
So the union plans to donate $10,000 to the family.
Something, for a family that has lost almost everything.
“It’s not going to do anything to bring a life back,” Smith said. “But the least we can do is help.”