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Location: Gardena, CA

Date Of Injury: July 2, 2000

In five days, Nancy Tran will put a wick to a flame and light a candle when hundreds gather for a vigil to remember victims of teen dating violence.

Tran, 33, could have died herself, given what happened to her nearly 15 years ago.

Advocates, counselors, social workers and people working to prevent domestic violence tell her she is a “victim.”

But the feisty Vietnamese woman eschews the label. She doesn’t want the crutch in what has increasing become a popular culture of victims.

She sees how some people have turned their plights into professions. They’ve made their suffering core to their identities and garnered publicity on talk shows and in the media. They’ve gained sympathy, even pity, from others by writing books and launching nonprofits and forever living out their pain.

Some of this is helpful for education and prevention. But Tran would rather not be characterized by her past.

“I’m not a victim,” said Tran, of Orange, shaking her head. “I’m a survivor.”

With this conviction, Tran will take her candle to the fire – the same weapon viciously used against her – on Friday night at the OC Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy at Tustin.

She will stand with strength but also in silence as representatives from Laura’s House, the Ladera Ranch nonprofit that shelters and assists victims of domestic violence, remember those who didn’t survive.

Tran survives, albeit with hundreds of scars, including the invisible ones, from the July 2, 2000, early morning when she awoke screaming in terror, her Gardena bedroom engulfed in flames.

She was 19.


Tran has never told her full story to the media, only to Los Angeles police and the prosecutors who put away the ex-boyfriend she won’t call by any name but “The Jerk.”

“He’s out of my life,” she said powerfully.

She had met him when she was 15, a Gardena High freshman and eager for love, hungry for attention, “though I know now it was the wrong kind,” she said.

He was four years older, had a FedEx job and money to take her out for dinners and dates and buy her gifts.

He told her he loved her in the first week. She was impressionable enough to believe this was true romance, even when he’d disappear for weeks and return with flowers.

He’d surprise her at school, coming onto campus as a delivery man. Her friends warned her of his dangerous affections, saying “there was something strange” about the way he watched her and didn’t want her around others.

“Whenever I wanted to call it off, he got angry,” Tran recalled. “I knew he wasn’t right for me but he didn’t go away and said he didn’t want to live without me.”

He kept following her for years. He knew she went to school at El Camino College and that she lived with her parents in Gardena. He knew which bedroom was hers.

Around 4 a.m. on July 2, 2000, he carried two gasoline cans up to the front porch, the neighbors later told police.

He broke into the home, poured gasoline around Tran’s bed, the windows and doors; lit up the room and fled.

“When I woke up, the place was filled with smoke and I ran outside onto the street,” Tran recalled. “My mother was yelling, ‘I saw him! I saw him!’”

Tran, fueled by anger and adrenalin, wanted to chase him down. He was gone.

She returned home. Her mother smelled how she was soaked in gasoline, so she rushed to the bathroom to rinse off.

She saw her face in the mirror. It was singed pink, like the skin on her neck, arms and her chest clinging to charred bits of her pajamas.

Before the police and fire departments came, she remembers asking her father to take her to the hospital.

Then everything went black.

She passed out from shock.

“Two weeks later, I woke up in the hospital with bandages everywhere,” Tran said. “Nobody wanted me to look in the mirror.”

She had been burned over 35 percent of her body. She lost her hair. Her face was severely disfigured.

Tran needed more than 20 surgeries and skin grafts over five years to reconstruct her nose, reshape her lips and smooth her torso.

“He burned all the woman off me,” she said, her brown eyes bold and piercing.

“I won’t let him take anything else. He went to Folsom prison, serving 12 to life for attempted murder.”

Tran saw him one other time in a courtroom in 2001, pointing at him, staring at him, stone cold and fearless, her eyes telling him, “I’m not scared of you.”

She recalled that moment on the witness stand. “I wasn’t going to play the victim,” she said.


Tran returned to El Camino College, then Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton to get her bachelor’s degree.

“I wanted to get back to normal after about a year of not wanting to go outside,” she said. “I was able to do this because my friends and family didn’t treat me any differently even though I didn’t look the same as before.”

Tran doesn’t focus on how her looks have changed. She remains “beautiful my way” and proud, going out with friends, dancing, enjoying cranberry vodka, eating scrumptious meals and laughing despite the occasional stares from strangers.

“I haven’t gone on a date yet, but maybe soon,” she said, smiling, tossing back her long brown hair with blond highlights and smiling, lipstick bright red.

She wears costume makeup to hide the scars and has given tips to burn victims on how to look glamorous. She works out daily, stays fit and is so strong she’s even thinking about taking up bodybuilding.

Tran has already rebuilt so much of her life. She completed her master’s in social work at USC last year and is currently in a job search.

She took an internship at Laura’s House, where she met prevention and education specialist Marissa Presley, who helped her understand some of what she had survived.

Presley, an ardent crusader against domestic violence, regularly speaks at local high schools to educate teens about the warning signs of unhealthy and abusive relationships.

At El Toro High on Tuesday, Presley told a health class about Tran and other victims of domestic violence and how 1 in 3 American adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

She discussed today’s Super Bowl, reminding the students of the video showing how former NFL player Ray Rice punched out his then-girlfriend and then dragged her unconscious body from an elevator.

She told a rapt audience about how hip-hop star Rihanna was beaten by her former boyfriend, singer Chris Brown, and held up photos of Rihanna bruised face.

Presley scared them with the tragedy of “someone who sat right where you are sitting:” former El Toro High graduate Jacque Villagomez, a 19-year-old aspiring singer and model who was beaten to death by her boyfriend in 2008.

Tran has heard the horror stories that will be retold at Friday’s candlelight vigil and during February, which is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.

She will carry her flame that night, having survived one of her own. Without fear. And without feeling like a victim.