Byron Smith for The Boston Globe
Like many of his family members, friends, and countrymen, Jaime Galdamez fled the political and economic troubles of his native El Salvador for the promise of a better life in America.
Living in an illegal basement apartment, working in a restaurant, and sending money back home, Galdamez eked out an existence for nearly a decade -- until the 28-year-old's life was cut short this morning, under suspicious circumstances, in East Boston.
Boston firefighters responded to 877 Saratoga St. around 8 a.m. today. The small fire was contained to the basement, sparing serious damage for the families that live on the first and second floors, but as firefighters were making their way into the basement, they discovered Galdamez, lying in a bed dead, said Steve MacDonald, a spokesman for the Boston Fire Department.
Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll called the death suspicious, and MacDonald said the fire, which occurred in the tiny basement studio where Galdamez lived, was also suspicious. Boston police and fire, and the Suffolk district attorney are investigating the death and the cause of the fire. Authorities searched the premises with a search warrant tonight, Driscoll said.
Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for the city's Inspectional Services Department, said the apartment was illegal and that the house was only approved for apartments on the first and second floors.
Family and friends gathered around Saratoga Street today in tears. No one seemed to understand why someone would want to hurt this quiet, hard-working immigrant who worked in a downtown restaurant.
Officials did not release Galdamez's name today, but he was identified by multiple relatives.
An aunt, Lilian Ciulla, 34, of Methuen, sobbed as she described how Galdamez was raised by his grandmother, who is about 84, and how he always sent money back home to her, even has he lived in near poverty.
"I don't know how we're going to tell her," Ciulla said.
Ciulla, who along with other relatives believe Galdamez's death was not an accident, said he had no enemies and had never been in trouble.
"You cannot really know how someone could do something like this to someone like that," she said. "If I knew that he was involved in something, I could understand, but he wasn't."
Ciulla said Galdamez's father is a farmer in their home country. She said that Jaime Galdamez came to this country illegally, but received work authorization from the federal government. That allowed him to stay here and work, but it meant he could not return to the US if he left the country. He never saw his grandmother again, Ciulla said.
Oscar Flores, 28, a tall, muscular man, stood in tears across the street from the scene. Flores and Galdamez were roommates for years and have know each other since Galdamez first arrived in the US about eight years ago.
"He was a good roommate," Flores said. "He liked to play Nintendo with my brother and my 6-year-old son."
While many of Galdamez's family members had not talked to him in recent weeks, due to their work schedules, Flores spoke with him just a few days ago. Galdamez was planning on moving into an apartment in Flores's house in East Boston.
Officials did not know today if Galdamez died in the fire or before it broke out. If Galdamez died as a direct result of the fire, it would be the first fire fatality in Boston this year and the first since two people died in another East Boston fire on May 29, 2010, MacDonald said.
MacDonald said one firefighter suffered a back injury and was hospitalized for treatment.
Mike Bello of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
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