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One Victim's Life

On July 10, a Costa Rican immigrant died in the Interstate 90 Connector tunnel when ceiling panels fell and crushed her car. Her death and the ceiling failure that caused it have sparked a wide-scale investigation into the safety of the ceilings in the entire Big Dig tunnel system. Her death has also left her three children in Costa Rica without a mother and means of support.

Milena Del Valle, the woman who died, came to Boston about four years ago. At about that time Pastor Lisa De Paz, who lived in Boston, received a phone call.

"I said, 'Hello,'" says Pastor De Paz, "and then a very happy voice answered. She said, 'It's Milena.'

"I asked, 'Where are you? In Costa Rica?'

"'No, I'm here in Jamaica Plain," she said.

De Paz couldn't believe her friend from Costa Rica had shown up in the same city and neighborhood she her husband had chosen to start a Spanish-language church.

The two resumed a friendship they started years ago when Milena joined the De Paz's ministry in Milena's rural town of Vasquez de Coronado.

Milena was a single mom and worked two jobs as a baker and a welder to support her kids. Then she came to the states because she thought she could give them a better life sending them U.S. dollars. When Milena left her children in the care of her mother five years ago, her youngest child was only 12.

When she got to Boston in 2001, Milena didn't know anyone, until she found De Paz and her husband. Pastor Cesar De Paz at the time had a radio show, which Milena heard and prompted her to call the De Paz's. Lisa De Paz recalls Milena worked as a nanny, in a bakery and then cleaning and cooking in a restaurant.
She sent most of her money home to her kids.

"I remember an afternoon that we were talking about it," De Paz said. "I said, 'Milena, you need to take care of yourself. You need to take at least $20 of that money and buy something for yourself.' She said, 'You're right, Lisa.'"

Because Milena Del Valle went for a number of years without documents to live legally in the U.S. she couldn't travel to Costa Rica. She spent years without seeing her children, Raquel, Caleb and Jeremy.

"It's something that breaks my heart," De Paz said. "She was always talking to me, saying 'I miss my kids, I want to see them.'"

Milena was determined to stay here and eventually bring her kids over. She liked Boston, in part because of the city, but mostly because she fell in love with Angel Luis Del Valle, who was working in the meat department at Hi-Lo Foods in Jamaica Plain. It's a grocery store that specializes in Caribbean food.

He had just moved here from Puerto Rico to join his sister and other relatives who'd established themselves in Boston years ago. It was his sister who introduced Milena to Angel Luis, and the family quickly accepted her. But Lisa De Paz says being the only Costa Rican in a huge family of Puerto Ricans could be overwhelming for Milena. And sometimes there were cultural misunderstandings when Milena used a word that was harmless in Costa Rican Spanish but offensive to Puerto Ricans, and vice versa.

"It was very difficult.," De Paz says. "She always told me, 'Lisa, I need to learn English, but now I need to learn Puerto Rican. What can I do? They don't understand me.'"

That family has rallied around Angel Luis Del Valle since his wife's death. The day before Milena's memorial service, friends and relatives were busy at Angel's sister's home in Dorchester. A crew of about six people sat on the porch in the sweltering heat putting together boxes bearing Milena's picture, for people to leave donations for the family.

Upstairs, Angel Luis Del Valle - or Papo, as he's known here - sits in the living room of his sister's home flanked by his daughter and brother. They and two sons were among those Milena and Angel Luis were going to pick up at Logan Airport when the ceiling panels crushed their car, killing Milena. Angel Luis has been staying with his sister since then, only going back to his apartment when he needs something.

"Imagine if I were at that apartment now," he says in Spanish. "Alone where I spent everyday with her. Usually, when I got home she always had coffee ready for me there. Or I had coffee waiting for her. We were very united."

The couple lived in Jamaica Plain in a rented apartment. But they dreamed of owning their own home in Boston. Milena got legal residency since Angel is a U.S. citizen. That meant she could finally travel outside of the United States. And this spring, together, they went to Costa Rica to see her children and finally meet her grandchildren.

"She was so happy," Del Valle says. "Imagine finally seeing her kids after so many years. They were bigger and different after five years. When we came back she was cam calm because she knew she could go back each year."

Three weeks after she returned from Costa Rica, Milena Del Valle died in the Big Dig tunnel.

Since then Angel Luis hasn't slept much and says he doesn't feel like himself. He's said he doesn't blame anyone for the ceiling failure that crushed his bride. He's offended by the talk of litigation right now and has refrained from commenting on the political storm that's erupted since his wife died. But he does hope that the government helps him keep a promise he has to Milena.

"Her dream was to bring her kids here," he says. "And for some stupid accident or some shoddy work they did on that tunnel, her dreams have been shattered. And now they need to help me bring her kids here."

The following day, July 15, hundreds of people turned out for Milena Del Valle's memorial service at the Iglesia Hispana de la Communidad, her Evangelical church in Costa Rica. Her old friends from Costa Rica, Lisa De Paz and her husband Cesar led the service. A slideshow of Milena looped in the background.

In his eulogy, Pastor Cesar De Paz remarked on how hard Milena worked to support her kids. And even when money was tight, she gave to the church.

He said Milena traveled with her husband to the airport last Monday night trusting the city of Boston was safe.

He said no one is to blame for the accident, but he called on the congregation to pray for the public officials investigating and repairing the tunnel where Milena died.

In Spanish, he asked that "God give them the wisdom... and the fear of god so that the tragedy that happened to our sister Milena never happens again."

Some of the officials he was talking about were sitting in the front row of the church just feet away from the casket. The other congregants, many of whom are members of the church, looked at each other and raised their eyebrows as their pastor took the authorities to task.

After the memorial service, Milena's friends and family - even people who didn't know her - expressed a common sentiment. Milena Del Valle spent her life giving to her community; whether it was to her church, or her family or her kids in Costa Rica. And now, in a tragic way, she's still giving. Perhaps by losing her life, she's saved many other lives.

This program aired on July 17, 2006. The audio for this program is not available.

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