Dead girl's family sought peace here After fleeing Laos, Carroll was refuge

February 10, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

The death of 15-year-old Ratsmy Keosambath still does not seem real to her family, said her brother, Nylabonh.

"We're just trying to . . . make sure she is really gone," said Mr. Keosambath, 19, speaking for his parents and Ratsmy's three older sisters. "It's going to take a lot of time."

Ratsmy fell through the ice on a pond at the Taneytown Rod and Gun Club Monday afternoon. She was underwater for about 20 minutes before rescuers could pull her out. She died at 3:30 a.m. yesterday at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

Until Monday, the Keosambaths thought their big problems were behind them, Mr. Keosambath said.

The family had escaped in the late 1970s from Laos to Thailand, where Ratsmy was born, and emigrated to Taneytown in 1980.

"What we went through was not uncommon," Mr. Keosambath said. "We knew of the difficulty we had to get through to have a normal life. My parents are very strong, and they started here with a very low budget. We had to be careful how much we spent."

His parents, Oudom and Chanh Keosambath, work at Maryland Cup Corp. in Owings Mills. The family moved two months ago into a new, larger house on Bancroft Way, a few minutes away from their previous home on Berry Court.

"She was so happy when we moved to this house," Mr. Keosambath said of Ratsmy.

When his parents saved enough money to buy a pair of bicycles several years ago, he said, "It was like a car to us. We were pretty much very poor, but at that point we felt rich. We had food, we were together.

"We never thought we would lose someone close to us. We thought we had a perfect life."

Ratsmy was a sweet, well-liked girl who enjoyed drawing, singing and reading, her brother and friends said yesterday. She and Gregory Haller, her neighbor and best friend, often used to go to the pond after school to play.

Gregory, 14, fell in the pond with Ratsmy Monday as they were chasing a duck they often played with there, he said yesterday from his Clover Court home. He is the son of Ronald and Donna Haller.

"[The duck] didn't come to us like it usually did, so we went after it," he said.

The two walked onto the icy pond toward the duck. When the ice started to break under their feet, they turned and walked several steps back toward the shore, but the ice gave way before they could make it, he said.

Gregory said Ratsmy couldn't swim, and was holding onto his jacket in the water. Gregory can swim, but he said he had trouble staying afloat because of the cold water and Ratsmy hanging onto him.

Another boy went to get Nylabonh Keosambath, who brought a rope, Gregory said. Before they could get Ratsmy out, she went under, he said.

"She said she was too cold, and then when I got the rope from her brother, I turned around and she was gone," Gregory said. He was treated at Carroll County General Hospital and was released later that night.

Mr. Keosambath said police wouldn't let him dive into the water to find his sister, who was found later by rescuers and flown by MedEvac helicopter to Hopkins.

Yesterday, students and teachers at Francis Scott Key High School, where Ratsmy was a sophomore, were dealing with her death with help from a crisis team of counselors and pupil-personnel workers, said Principal George Phillips.

Mr. Keosambath is a senior at Key, and his sister, Montry, 17, is a sophomore. They have two older sisters, Vanmaly, 26, and Boulaphane, 25, who also live at home and are Key graduates.

Classes were in session at the school, but students and teachers who wanted to talk to counselors were invited to do so, Mr. Phillips said.

"She [Ratsmy] was a fine student, and was very pleasant and well-liked," he said.

Rose Mattavi, a teacher at Key and chairwoman of the special education department, said she has come to know the family well over the last several years.

"Ratsmy was just a very good student -- a very polite, gentle and generous person," Ms. Mattavi said. "This is a family that really had to struggle to make a life in this country.

"It's been a very hard day."

Mr. Keosambath said the family will probably have a Buddhist ceremony for Ratsmy, but was not sure when or where it would be.

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