Brian Tha Saechao beloved by hundreds of Iu Mien refugees he helped navigate through schools, hospitals and personal tragedies died Friday trying unsuccessfully to rescue one more, his 2-year-old son, Raphael.
The boy apparently fell into the deep end of the backyard pool in the Pocket Area home the family had moved into three weeks ago. Saechao who could not swim jumped in after the boy, said Fam Chao, the grief-stricken widow and mother.
Chao, who is eight months pregnant, came home from the doctor at 3 p.m. Friday and found her home deathly silent.
"Normally I hear my son talking, but I didn't hear or see anybody," Chao said as she stood beside the pool Monday. "I came out here and both of them were in the deep end Brian had sunk to the bottom and Raphael was floating on top."
Chao said she jumped in, grabbed her son and screamed for help until a neighbor came over and called 911. But it was too late.
"Brian had some scratches on the right side of his face, and his slippers were in the deep end," said a teary-eyed Chao. "I think Brian jumped in to try to save Raphael."
The Sacramento County Coroner's Office has determined the two deaths were accidental.
Chao was flanked Monday by friends and supporters. Dozens of them, including traditional Iu Mien healers, have filled her home since word of the tragedy spread over the weekend.
There is no fence between the pool and the house. Chao said her husband had contacted a couple of fencing companies even before the couple closed escrow.
He "wanted to get a third quote," she said.
Saechao, 30, was probably out cleaning the pool when her son stumbled in, Chao said.
"He'd say over and over again, 'Honey, we've got to do a job maintaining the house it's our house!' "
The couple loved the neighborhood and intended to send their children to school at Genevieve Didion K-8.
For years they had both served the Sacramento area's roughly 15,000 Iu Mien refugees from the mountains of Laos and Thailand, and their American-born children. Sacramento has the largest Iu Mien population in the United States.
The couple met in 2003 while both were helping organize the Iu Mien student conference held annually for hundreds of high school kids aiming for college. Saechao had come out of Lodi's Tokay High; Chao from Sacramento's C.K. McClatchy High.
Both were pioneers who went on to graduate from California State University, Sacramento, with master's degrees in social work. Saechao went on to work for Sacramento County Child Protective Services.
They joined the board of the United Iu Mien Community, helping refugees many of whom had served in the CIA's jungle army against the Vietnamese and Lao communists adjust to life in America.
"They didn't know English, didn't know how to access mental health or substance-abuse services," Chao said. "Kids would often assume the role of parents."
Chao was working at the Sacramento Children's Home when she caught Saechao's eye.
"He said he liked my brown-rim glasses, the way I carried myself and the way I talked about kids."
And Chao quickly fell for Saechao's good nature.
"I was a very angry person before I met him," said Chao. "I grew up around substance abuse and domestic violence, and his mantra was, 'Always be positive.'
"He taught me how to love," she said. "He befriended everyone he came into contact with, no questions asked."
His sister-in-law, Khen Ciscoe, said Saechao "exuded happiness, never got mad and was always smiling qualities he passed on to his son, Raphael, the perfect child."
Saechao had taken time off to care for his son, who was already speaking English and Iu Mien. Saechao named him Raphael after one of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" he enjoyed drawing.
His nickname was "Hero Artist," because he loved to draw television characters and portraits, and shared his skills with children.
"He had a gift for working with teenagers," Chao recalled. "Somebody could be screaming and yelling at him, and he'd always be soft and gentle. He'd get people to listen to him, made sure everyone felt included, and could mediate any conflict."
His younger brother, David Chao, recalled Brian's sense of humor.
"He was just goofy. He was the person that made everyone laugh at his own expense."
Chao said her husband learned kindness and hard work from his parents, Fouta Chao and Gain Saechao of Lodi, refugees from Thailand. The parents helped host the steady stream of family members and friends who have delivered food, love and support since Friday, as is the Iu Mien way.
The family members included a cousin who had lost her husband to suicide. She recalled that Saechao had taken a day off work to drive her and her two young daughters to San Francisco to see where her husband's ashes had been scattered and to say their goodbyes.
Last week, Saechao had helped take a group of Iu Mien senior citizens to visit an Indian reservation in Colfax.
"There was a handicapped Iu Mien veteran, so Brian walked with him, brought him a stool and said, 'Older brother, please have a seat,' " said Chiem-Seng Yaangh, leader of the Iu Mien community in Sacramento.
"His legacy is that he was a great role model for our young people he taught them to take care of their family and also take care of the community," Yaangh said. "He changed the name of United Iu Mien Community to Iu Mien Community Services. Who's going to step up to take his place?"
Someday, it may be Saechao's unborn son.
"I'm naming him Brian Raphael," Chao said. "I know they're in heaven. I believe in my heart Brian was sent to do God's work, and it was his time to go."
Funeral services: Wednesday, Lodi Funeral Home, 725 South Fairmont Ave., Lodi. Viewing: 9 a.m.-noon. Memorial service, 12:30-1:30 p.m.
Contributions: Please make checks payable to: Brian and Raphael Saechao Memorial Fund. Donations can also be made at a Golden 1 Credit Union branch.