Marshalltown, IA (written by Jens Mauel Krogstad & Grant Rodgers/Des Moines Register) -- Overcome with grief, Tay Mo smashed a mirror in her upper-floor apartment Wednesday night and lunged for an open window, a family friend said.
The friend, Khay Da, 28, said he stopped her suicide attempt in the hours after two of her children -- Lee Meh, 9, and Se Reh, 7 -- had drowned in the Iowa River. She spent the night in the hospital, he said.
"It's difficult to lose one kid. (She lost) two kids at the same time," Da said.
The parents of a third child who drowned Wednesday evening, Thay Mo, 7, at least initially did not believe she was dead. On Thursday morning, the couple refused to recite traditional prayers for the dead. They had touched Thay Mo's arm shortly after her death, Da explained, and her arm's warmth had given them hope she was still alive.
The Marshalltown community is struggling to support and comfort the two families, refugees from the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, formerly Burma, because of a language barrier that affects even those from the country. The families speak one of an estimated 135 dialects used by ethnic minorities in the country of about 60 million people.
"I'm very sad," said Da, who knows enough of the dialect the families speak, Karenni, to communicate with them. "I do not have very good words to describe, but I just want them to live happily and peacefully in the United States."
The children were first cousins; their fathers are brothers.
Da said he helped enroll two of the children in school last year, and had fond recollections of them. Lee Meh was quiet but smiled a lot, he said. Her brother, Se Reh, loved to play and was eager to wear his new clothes at the start of the school year, he said.
This is the second drowning in the area in the last month. A 10-year-old Marshalltown boy drowned June 18, officials said. Andres Favela had jumped into the river at the Center Street dam, which is less than a mile upstream from where Wednesday's drownings occurred.
Family outing at fishing, swimming hole
Though friends said the families have air conditioning in their homes, about a dozen family members had arrived at the river bank to fish and swim on Wednesday. They saw the children go under the water shortly after 6 p.m., police said.
Marshalltown police late Thursday released a recording of a 911 call placed after the children disappeared.
A person's screams are audible for almost all of the 80-second call. After a dispatcher says she's having trouble understanding the caller, another voice says "Riverview Park" and then, in broken English, that a boy and girl are missing in the river.
Tupper said Thursday night that officers were already in the area and were able to locate the family within minutes of the 911 call. Despite the language barrier, he said, the family and officers were able to communicate effectively enough that the search began immediately.
Events leading up to the drownings remain under investigation. Tupper said autopsies are tentatively planned for today and Saturday, with results not expected for several weeks.
Rescuers pulled the children's bodies from the water during a 2½-hour recovery operation that included an aerial search by a hospital helicopter.
Parents came from refugee camps
Between 500 to 1,000 people from Myanmar live in central Iowa, according to Da and several local school officials. Most started arriving about three years ago to work at the meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, they said.
Before arriving in the United States, the children's parents spent most of their lives with an estimated 150,000 refugees living in camps along the Myanmar-Thailand border, Da said. The refugees fled to escape a military dictatorship in Myanmar. Today, Myanmar is struggling to establish a democratic government.
The children were born at the camps, Da said. Both sets of parents are illiterate, he and others in the community said.
Tay Mo, the mother who lost two of her five children, for example, is fairly certain she was born in 1976, but doesn't know her exact birth date, Da said.
"They don't recognize how to spell their names. They don't know the age of their kids," Da said. "It's really, really difficult to communicate."
Dale Scritchfield, pastor at First United Methodist Church, said about 30 to 50 Myanmar families worship at his church on Sunday afternoons. He said some in his congregation who had survived the loss of a child wanted to comfort the families, but they realized they could do little without a way to communicate.
"Our challenge is how to come alongside these folks when there's such a language barrier," he said.
Donations sought to pay for funeral
School officials visited the homes of both families Thursday morning, and the parents were expected to identify their children's bodies later in the day, said Bea Niblock, principal of Anson Elementary School, where Lee Meh and Se Reh were enrolled.
Niblock said the district tried to gather cultural information to help the families organize a funeral, but ran into difficulties because the district's interpreter, a Myanmar native, doesn't speak the families' language.
A collection has been started in the Myanmar community, but Da said he's not sure how much money the community can raise.
(Contributing: Register staff writer James Heggen)