Tin Nguyen spent Tuesday with her boyfriend Haisan Trinh celebrating his 32nd birthday. She had a surprise planned for him on Thursday.
Together nearly six years, the couple had been talking marriage – Trinh had even been saving to buy an engagement ring – but the kind and generous Nguyen was already like part of the family, said Trinh’s brother Haian Trinh, 33.
She was Haisan Trinh’s “first girlfriend, ever,” his brother said Friday as her boyfriend and parents prayed, “and in so many ways was the perfect girl for him.”
Nguyen, 31, who moved to Santa Ana from Vietnam as a child, was one of 14 people killed Wednesday in the mass shooting in San Bernardino. Her friends and family remember her as “an incredible person with a contagious smile” who “had a heart bigger than the sun,” according to a GoFundMe site to help her mother, Van Nguyen, with the memorial costs.
Like the other shooting victims, Tin Nguyen was at a holiday luncheon for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, where she worked as a food inspector.
Nguyen long had an interest in health issues, earning her bachelor’s degree in health science in 2010 from Cal State Fullerton.
While studying there, she became the first intern with the Office of Environmental Health and Safety to take and pass a Registered Environmental Health Specialist certification exam, according to Colleen Wilkins, a Cal State Fullerton occupational safety officer.
“She was enthusiastic about life and opportunities before her, and she was dependable and down-to-earth,” Danny H. Kim, associate professor of health science, said in a statement.
That October after Nguyen graduated, Kim received an email from her informing him of her new job with the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.
Outside of work, her day always started and ended with her boyfriend, his brother said.
Every morning, Nguyen would call Haisan Trinh to wake him up for work and he would call her on his way back home from work, Haian Trinh said.
The two had talked about buying a house somewhere in Orange County together and “she wanted five girls or something,” Haian Trinh said. Nguyen had tried on a wedding dress, and Haisan Trinh was saving up for an engagement ring.
“He had all the intention of doing it,” Haian Trinh said about his brother’s plans to tie the knot. “He just thought he had a little bit more time.”
The pair met at Valley High in Santa Ana, and after going separate ways for college they reconnected. In the nearly six years that they dated, “he has never been mad at her once,” the brother said.
Getting mad at Nguyen seemed almost an impossibility, those who knew her at different points of her life said.
At McFadden Intermediate, Nguyen was soft-spoken – perhaps because of her limited English – but her classmate Phi Luong, 31, recalls being drawn to her because “she was just a very nice person.”
“She just had that personality, you know, that goodness about her,” Luong, of Costa Mesa, said.
The two girls went on to play tennis together at Valley High. Luong, the team captain at the time, said Nguyen was “willing to do anything for everybody.”
“This just literally breaks my heart,” Luong said of the shooting. “Because kids in Santa Ana, people don’t expect a lot from the inner city communities, but I felt that she had a lot to give.”
She was a giving daughter and sister as well.
From working through Adams Elementary, Carr Intermediate, McFadden Intermediate and Valley High School learning English as a second language, Nguyen came to be the sole provider for her mother and older brother at their home in Santa Ana, which she owned.
“She provided everything financially and emotionally,” Haian Trinh said.
One giving memory of Nguyen sticks out in the mind of her seventh-grade science teacher, Erin Sloan, at Carr Intermediate.
As part of the gardening curriculum, Sloan had ordered 20 pounds of worms for his students to learn about feeding them garbage to create compost. The worms were expected to arrive in two weeks, but instead arrived in two days – at the end of the school day Friday.
That worried Sloan, because the worms would die if they weren’t transferred from the packaging to plastic bins with wet newspaper shreds. Nguyen volunteered.
“I thought, ‘that’s incredibly nice,’” Sloan, 57, recounted. “But that was just the way she was.”
On Thursday, when Sloan heard the names of the 14 San Bernardino victims, he realized one was Nguyen – the girl who had sweetly volunteered to transfer worms on a Friday afternoon.
“Another light in the world is out,” Sloan said.
When her boyfriend, Haisan Trinh, a mechanical engineer for Boeing, got wind of the mass shooting Wednesday, he texted her, his brother said. No response.
He “went to every single hospital in the San Bernardino area trying to find her,” Trinh’s brother said. Eventually, Trinh sent another text – to his brother, informing him that Nguyen had died in the carnage.
“I know that she had a surprise for him,” Haian Trinh. “And now, he will never know.”