Lee Thao’s children Jayce and Elizabeth were cheerful, inseparable and loved the outdoors.
Both were smart for their ages. Jayce was energetic and liked dinosaurs – his favorite was the T-rex. He was a helpful big brother and knew where to get a bottle for Elizabeth if she was hungry.
All Lee Thao could do Thursday was remember his children. Elizabeth Thao, 2, and Jayce Thao, 3, drowned Monday in the Sunnyside neighborhood of southeast Fresno. The children left their home through an open garage door. The pair walked to a neighbor’s house and entered the yard through an open gate, then climbed or squeezed through a smaller gate that was around the pool.
“My son Jayce, he was a leader,” Lee Thao, 27, said. “Everywhere he went, my daughter, she followed him.”
Before Monday, Elizabeth had started potty training. She loved drawing and dressing up and monkey toys, though she equally liked playing with her brother’s dinosaurs. The siblings shared everything.
No one can understand the pain (and) guilt I feel every minute of every day since that unfortunate morning.
Gourgnia Xiong, whose son and daughter drowned in a neighbor’s pool
Lee Thao said they often went to Woodward Park, where his son would ride his tricycle while he pushed his daughter in a cart. He and their mother, Gourgnia Xiong, are separated, so the children spent half of each week at the home he shares with his parents and grandparents, and the other half with her.
His father said he enjoyed seeing how much his children loved their mother. Their eyes lit up every time he dropped them off at her home.
“We spoiled our kids as much as we could,” he said.
The GoFundMe account set up by Lee Thao’s parents to cover funeral expenses surpassed its $10,000 goal. By Thursday afternoon, the fundraiser had been shared 8,700 times and raised nearly $10,400. Lee Thao’s father, Nong Thao, said he’s thankful for the generosity of friends and strangers alike. Despite the sadness, he said it’s comforting to know the community cares about his family.
Nong Thao said he’ll miss coming home from work and seeing his grandchildren run up to hug him, yelling, “Grandpa is here!”
“I just can’t believe they’re not there anymore,” he said.
On the fundraiser page, their grandmother Neng Her Thao said the children brought her family laughter, joy and warmth.
“We learned to love when we didn’t have any more patience, when something we treasured or invested in was destroyed, when we saw or smelled things that made us cringe, when we were hurt emotionally or physically,” she wrote. “They taught us so incredibly much with the time God allowed us to have them.”
I just can’t believe they’re not there anymore.
Nong Thao, grandfather of the children who drowned
Xiong, 26, posted a comment on the fundraiser page saying said her children were always smiling and laughing, and impacted the lives of everyone around them. But she said the tragedy will haunt her for the rest of her life.
“No one can understand the pain (and) guilt I feel every minute of every day since that unfortunate morning,” she wrote, “holding my lifeless, precious babies in my arms and never ever wanting to let them go.”
Police and the neighbor discovered the children Monday in the pool. They were pronounced dead at 12:40 p.m. Investigators believe they were under water for 15 to 20 minutes.
Relatives were home at the time, but Lee Thao had left for work at a car wash. Once they were discovered missing, family members called police just before 11 a.m. Police ruled the cause of the children’s deaths to be accidental.
Details about the public funeral are forthcoming, but services will be held at the United Funeral Home chapel in Fresno on the evening of Sept. 30 and the morning of Oct. 1.