She was set to celebrate her graduation this month from Boston University: Binland Lee's family in New York had already booked hotel rooms in Boston and her mother, brimming with pride in her only child, had purchased nearly $400 worth of senior photos — an extravagance that cost the seamstress at least a week's paycheck.
Then on Sunday, Lee, 22, was killed when a three-alarm fire swept through her apartment on Linden Street in Allston. Nine other residents and six firefighters were injured.
The Boston Fire Department said on Thursday that the fire was caused by careless disposal of smoking materials. The Suffolk district attorney's office is investigating to see if charges are warranted.
"We're all heartbroken," said Lee's uncle, Da Ren Kwong, in a phone interview from upstate New York. Kwong described his niece as a smart young woman who loved volunteering and talked often about "her passions, her dreams, the oceans, marine biology."
He spoke of Lee in the present tense, pausing occasionally to gather himself, and said their tight-knit family is devastated by her loss.
Lee was close with her mother, who has not been able to leave her house to look at cemeteries, Kwong said.
"She talks to her mom every day, and that's not an exaggeration at all," said Kwong. "It's her mom's only child, she's all her life."
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a statement that he has assigned a seasoned prosecutor to oversee the investigation.
"We investigate every unattended death to determine whether charges are warranted against any person in any capacity," he said. "This case is no exception. We're not prejudging the case and the probe is in its very early stages. We'll follow the evidence wherever it leads and we'll apply the law fairly to the facts before we make a charging decision."
Nineteen people lived in the building at 87 Linden St. A city ordinance prohibits more than four unrelated undergraduate students from sharing a dwelling; officials said at least six of the 19 residents were BU students.
The last time the city Inspectional Services workers inspected the home, according to a spokeswoman, was in 1992. The property owner, Anna Belokurova, was cited by the city on Tuesday for running an illegal rooming house.
Kwong said when Lee's mother visited her daughter at her apartment, she was concerned about the building's safety.
"She saw exposed wires on the wall, and Binland said it was OK," said Kwong. "She just didn't want her mom to worry. Her mom, of course, worries about her."
In a statement, Belokurova's lawyer, Frank L. Fragomeni Jr., thanked firefighters and said the victims were in his client's thoughts and prayers, and offered a defense of his client.
"The property has . . . passed inspection many times in the 10 years she has owned it," Fragomeni said. "We will continue to provide full cooperation to all agencies, authorities and investigators until the cause of this tragedy is determined."
A spokeswoman for the department dismissed Fragomeni's claim that the property had been inspected.
"What inspections are those? Because according to our records, we're showing the last inspection took place in 1992," said Lisa Timberlake. "We have written several tickets for improper disposal of trash, but that's because the inspectors, they saw there was trash improperly stored on the outside of the property, but at that time we did not go in."
The fire started about 6:35 Sunday morning, in an open space between the first and second floors where there once was a staircase, according to Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald. The fire traveled unimpeded up to the second floor and into the attic, where Lee's room was.
"It was a bad fire," said MacDonald. "It was going pretty good when we got there. . . . There were people jumping off the roof, there were people on the roof waiting to be rescued. It was a fast-moving fire."
Kwong said Lee was planning to go to graduate school to study marine biology. He said she loved to volunteer, and worked at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island and at parks in her native New York City.
"I remember this past summer, I know some friends that can offer her a job that pays pretty well, but she'd rather do what she likes," said Kwong.
While Lee was set to walk with her class in May, said Kwong, she still had a class or two to finish over the summer. She had begun looking at graduate schools, and had talked about pursuing a doctorate.
"I wish I had talked to her more recently," he said quietly. "I didn't want to distract her from finals."