When Gorgui Lamine Sow heard shouts for help and saw the fire at a residence in eastern Spain last week, he didn’t think twice. Scaling a wall and climbing onto a balcony, he entered the burning second-floor apartment, hoisted the occupant onto his shoulder and carried him to safety.
But Mr. Sow, an undocumented street vendor from Senegal, did not stick around for thanks and congratulations. Instead, without identifying himself, he disappeared as soon as the emergency services reached the scene, in Dénia, about 60 miles south of Valencia.
A few days later, a local newspaper tracked down Mr. Sow, and moves are now afoot to reward him with residency. The proposal has been backed by an online petition that has gained more than 40,000 signatures in the week since the rescue. The authorities in Dénia have also said that the town plans to honor Mr. Sow with a special award.
“I did what my heart told me to do,” Mr. Sow told the newspaper, Levante-EMV, about the rescue. “I have nothing, but I am strong and I can help,” he said. “I don’t like to see people suffer.”
He described how he had acted after hearing shouts and seeing smoke billowing out of the apartment. One photograph showed him climbing out of the building with the occupant, Álex Caudeli Webster, on his shoulder, using a ladder provided by a neighbor.
Mr. Sow, 20, told the newspaper that he had arrived in Spain two years ago. He said he was living with his partner and 7-month-old baby in Gandia, a small town near Dénia, in a doorless dwelling in which they shared a mattress on the floor.
In an article published online in the Spanish newspaper El País on Wednesday, Mr. Caudeli, 39, was pictured with Mr. Sow. In the photograph, Mr. Sow wears a Superman T-shirt that Mr. Caudeli gave him. Mr. Caudeli’s nose, ear and wrist are bandaged as a result of burns suffered in the fire, which started while he was asleep.
“He saved my life,” Mr. Caudeli told El País. “He picked me up like a sack of beans.”
The rescue drew comparisons to the story of Mamoudou Gassama, a migrant from Mali who last year saved a boy who was dangling from a fourth-floor balcony in Paris. Mr. Gassama was later granted French citizenship.
The issue of undocumented street vendors stirs strong emotions in Spain. Most of the migrants come from Africa, and often have risked their lives fleeing violence or poverty. But many find that when they reach the European Union, finding a job without the correct papers is almost impossible.
Spain has become one of the main landing points for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. The flow of arrivals increased significantly in 2018 after Matteo Salvini, who was then Italy’s interior minister, closed his country’s ports to undocumented migrants.
But this year the Spanish government estimates that the number of migrants reaching its shores has halved from 2018, in part because of reinforced surveillance by the authorities in Morocco, where most migrants to Spain begin their journey.
Disasters at sea are common on the often overcrowded and ill-equipped boats that carry migrants to Europe. Last week, an African vessel that was bound for the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago, capsized off the coast of Mauritania. At least 58 people drowned, according to the International Organization for Migration.