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San Bernardino victim Tin Nguyen's family grieves amid surge in U.S. shootings

Tin Nguyen was more than just one of 14 victims murdered in San Bernardino. "She was the glue" that held the family together, one cousin said. Always "the planner," another one added, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke. And you wouldn't want to have her catch you cussing, another cousin said.

Tin Nguyen, 31, had been trying on wedding dresses the day before she was slain in a massacre

Tin Nguyen, 31, was among 14 victims killed in a mass shooting on Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif. She was a public health inspector, working in the same department as one of the two suspected shooters. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Tin Nguyen was more than just one of 14 victims murdered in San Bernardino. "She was the glue" that held the family together, one cousin said. Always "the planner," another one added, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke. And you wouldn't want to have her catch you cussing, another cousin said.  

One by one — some interrupting others to colour a funny story with more detail, or jockeying to share cellphone videos of her rehearsing for a recent flashmob dance — the cousins remembered their lost family member.   

For the 31-year-old public health inspector's grieving family, reports of a mass shooting on Wednesday morning at Inland Regional Centre had not immediately registered as something with a direct link to them.  

Officials on that day eventually put the death toll at 14. Another 21 were wounded in the spray of gunfire at an office holiday party. But as the reports continued, Nguyen's family was unable to reach her.  

"We were in denial; I really didn't want to believe it," her cousin, Peter, said from her parents' Santa Ana home, about an hour southeast of Los Angeles. "I think everybody tried to call her."  

It was unusual for Nguyen to be unresponsive.  

That very morning on Wednesday, she was group-texting all of her cousins about a hiking excursion she wanted to organize.   

"This could become our annual fall cousins' trip that we could start from now on," she wrote. "To come together and have fun with each other as a great big family."  

That was typical Tin, her family said.  

Trung Do, centre, is surrounded by grief-stricken cousins as he holds a photograph of his younger sister, Tin Nguyen, 31. Nguyen was murdered in a mass shooting on Wednesday at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Nguyen worked in the public health department at Inland Regional, the same agency that employed suspected gunman Syed Farook who, with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, were killed in a shootout with police following the rampage at the government services centre.  

As in the cases of too many other such tragedies — Colorado Springs, Newtown, Aurora, Columbine — the public health worker's parents experienced first-hand the anguish of not knowing whether their daughter had survived the attack.  

"We are trying to find my sis ... but they have been sending us in circles," Nguyen's older brother, Trung Do, sent in a text message to CBC News on Thursday morning. A block away from a crush of news vans near the shooting site, the family walked back to their car, holding each other as they were escorted by San Bernardino police.  

"We don't know anything. We're trying to find out what happened to her," a tearful relative said in the parking lot, before being driven off.  

Family yet to receive body

By the early afternoon, Nguyen was confirmed as a victim. The family, immigrants from Vietnam who arrived in Santa Ana about 20 years ago, have still been unable to see her body, according to cousins.  

Her brother, Trung, was not ready to speak, nor were their parents. 

Meanwhile, the city of San Bernardino has joined a tragic list of American cities blighted by mass shootings.  

And they are occurring at a staggering rate. Data mapped by ShootingTracker.com recorded 351 mass shootings this year in the U.S., with some 447 slain and 1,292 wounded. That's a rate of nearly one mass shooting (defined as a shooting involving four or more victims) per day. 
Tin Nguyen sent a text to her cousin at 10:34 a.m. About 30 minutes later, according to authorities, two attackers with guns fired indiscriminately at the Regional Inland Center. (CBC)

Last year, an analysis by Harvard University researchers found the rate of mass shootings had tripled since 2011.  

"You see these things on TV a lot. Too much nowadays," said Joe Hudson, who helped to organize an evening vigil for Inland Regional victims at a nearby stadium in San Bernardino. "You feel anger, there's grief, sadness, fear. Now, a day later, my concern is the grief aspect and how we move forward."  

For Nguyen's cousins, gathering in a circle at the family's porch as the mid-afternoon light faded, the process of moving forward begins with looking back.   

They remembered Tin as a cousin who volunteered at a foundation for Parkinson's research, who visited her grandfather's graveside every Sunday, who helped her younger cousins write their high-school essays, drilled them in mock job interviews and taught them how to drive on the freeway.  

"She would always say, 'I would never say no to family,'" Le said, her voice cracking with emotion. "She [was] always like, just whatever you need, just give it ... she would never say no."  

Picturing the kind of life Nguyen might have led in the future, Le said her cousin was trying on wedding dresses in Orange County the day before the shooting. She and her boyfriend were planning to get married.  

The older generation will likely prepare funeral arrangements, the cousins said. As for that hiking excursion Tin had suggested earlier in a group text, that might happen after all.  

"We'll dedicate some annual trip to her," Peter Nguyen said. "We have to do it now."
Tin Nguyen, far right, in colour, organized this recent photo portrait with all of her cousins. She was 'the glue' who often planned family trips and organized Secret Santa during Christmas, according to her cousins. (Courtesy Tran Nguyen)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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