It has been more than 16 years since a dormitory fire at Seton Hall University linked Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons and forever changed their lives.
But the former roommates at Boland Hall still are reliving Jan. 19, 2000 with the hopes their experience can help the next generation of college students.
Simons and Llanos were among the 58 students and firefighters taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center Burn Unit in Livingston following a fire at their freshman dorm. Most of the injuries were from smoke inhalation. Simons and Llanos and two others suffered severe burns. Three of their classmates died.
On June 3, they presented a fire-safety program to the members of Hamilton High School West’s Class of 2016. It was one of 225 Simons and Llanos present annually to high school and college students. They presented to all three of Hamilton’s public high schools this year, with plans to add Trenton Catholic Academy in the future.
This is the fourth year the fire districts have presented a safety program to the graduates. Past programs also included The 2003 Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people. The program was paid for by the Fire Commissioners of Hamilton Township Fire Districts 3, 4 and 7.
The presentation began with “After the Fire,” a 50-minute video of “heroes and cowards” that Simons described as “an emotional roller coaster because there are a lot of highs, but there are a lot of lows.” Simons likes to watch the reactions of the audience during the film, but Llano often leaves the room when “After the Fire” is on. He said it is still too emotional for him to relive that night.
Simons had months of physical and occupational therapy after the fire, but was able to finish his bachelor’s degree in business administration. His scars are mostly visible on his hands. Llanos’ injuries were more severe, including burns to the face. It took him five years to recover from the incident, derailing him from completing his degree.
The key message Simons and Llanos want the students to leave with is “they are not invincible.”
“When you are 18 years old, you think nothing is ever going to happen to you, that you know danger doesn’t exist,” Simons said. “And you want to be living proof to them that it does happen. Safety is something you should be concerned about at every age. Going off to college people think about how are we going to pay for it, who will be my roommate, what classes am I going to take. No one thinks about the safety aspect of it. Safety, in general, people don’t really think, so fire safety is something people put on the back burner. That’s something that people don’t realize—fires happen on campuses every year.”
Llanos wants students to recognize, “there is a consequence for your actions. You don’t realize that. You want to get a laugh or sometimes from your friends but doing a prank might affect you and somebody else.”
The 2000 Seton Hall University fire was set by students burning a bulletin board as a drunken prank. The fire quickly reached temperatures near 1,600 degrees melting carpets, sofas and ceiling tiles. It was extinguished in 10 minutes.
One lesson Fire Marshal Scott McCormick emphasized is having situational awareness. Most people go out the same door they entered the building. In Llanos and Simons’ case, the roommates remembered the fire safety lessons they learned in grade school and crawled in the direction they always left the building, in this case directly into the fire. Had they gone in the opposite direction and headed to the staircase instead of the elevator, they would have reached safety faster and possibly avoided injuries.
Another goal is to make an impression with older students, ones who often haven’t had fire safety training since they were in elementary school.
“We are trying to carry that message of awareness that the fire departments have a hard time because coming in with their fire suits on doesn’t impress these kids,” Simons said. “They can see the scars on our hands and on our bodies. They can see the effect of what a fire can really do and the importance of having fire prevention and fire awareness.”
The pair talks about the aftermath of their injuries, as a way of emphasizing the lingering effects an incident like the Seton Hall Fire can have. They must cover their scars with sunscreen in order to protect their damaged skin. The fire burned away Llanos’s sweat glands, leaving him unable to sweat.
“When I am having a heavy work out, I have to monitor myself and drink a lot of fluids because I tend to overheat,” Llanos said.
Llanos and Simons are now parents with children ranging in age from eight to 13. Despite enduring the fire at the beginning of their second semester of college, they are encouraging their children to attend college.
And in a bit of sliver lining, the Seton Hall fire has made dorms safer for today’s college students. In New Jersey, it is law to have a fire sprinkler over every bed in every residence hall at every college. New Jersey is the only state with that law. Llanos and Simons, along with parents of the classmates who died, have spoken to legislators elsewhere to encourage them to push for laws forcing colleges and universities to add sprinklers in every dorm room.
The men said they do not have an animosity for the arsonists.
“For me, personally, when I was going through my recovery, I didn’t have time to worry about them,” Llanos said. “I had my own journey to have to worry about, and I think there were enough people out there who hated them for us around us that we didn’t have to carry that hate.”
Simons agreed, but added, “One of the things we wish they had done was apologize for what they did and not lie for so long that it wasn’t them who set the fire. I think not necessarily for us to get closure, but for those parents who lost their children.”
It took investigators seven years to determine officially what happened. The two students accepted a 5-year plea deal. One served 32 months, the other only 28 months, less time than Llanos and Simons spent recovering from their injuries.
“We do forgive them,” Simons said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It is about how you recover from those mistakes and the lessons learned from those mistakes.”