SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The documentary “After the Fire: A True Story of Heroes and Cowards” had its college premiere at a Seton Hall University screening Monday afternoon.
The documentary, directed by Guido Verweyen, whose credits include MTV’s “True Life” series, chronicles the January 2000 fire that started on the third floor of Boland Hall, killing three students and injuring more than 60 others.
The film’s focus, however, is devoted almost entirely to the events that took place after that night, following the recovery of two of the most severely injured students, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, and the trial of the two freshmen convicted of setting the fire, Sean Ryan and Joseph LaPore.
While Simons and Llanos were at the hospital recovering from their burns, authorities worked to build a case against LaPore and Ryan, who confessed to setting the fire as a prank gone wrong three years after the incident, just before they were to go to trial.
At a panel after the screening, which included Verweyen, Llanos and Simons, Simons said he is able to look back at the tragedy and see something positive.
“(The fire) made us both better men,” Simons said, “I know now that I can overcome obstacles.”
When an audience member asked the pair how they felt about seeing their injuries and subsequent recovery captured on film, Llanos and Simons both said it was a story that just needed to be told.
“(This) could have happened to anyone,” Simons said, adding that by showing the documentary and talking about their experiences, “we are keeping the memory alive of the three students who passed away, and those who were injured, not only physically, but mentally.”
Simons and Alvaro said they didn’t hold grudges against LaPore and Ryan, who were each sentenced to five years in a juvenile facility.
“I didn’t have hatred,” Alvaro said, “Everyone else had enough for me; I was focused on my recovery.”
Simons said the only regret he had for them was that neither apologized to the families of the victims. “It’s a little disgraceful,” Simons said.
The doctor who treated the pair at St. Barnabas, Dr. E. Hani Mansour, who also sat on the panel, was harsher. “There were two cowards, essentially,” Mansour said. “If they said ‘we are sorry,’ this would have been a lot easier on everyone. There were 56 burns patients (taken to St. Barnabas) that day.”
Mansour said that there are pranks, but nothing is without consequences.
Overall, though, Verweyen, Llanos and Simons emphasized that this tale was one of triumph over tragedy, love over hate. Both men have gone on to have families and jobs.
Simons returned to Seton Hall the September following the fire, though he said he chose to commute because he could no longer face the dormitories, and completed his degree in 2003. Llanos said he has been taking classes here and there, and hopes to return to school next semester. The pair also frequently visit, mentor and comfort other burn victims.
Since the fire, laws have been enacted that require college dormitories in New Jersey to have sprinklers. False fire alarms at Seton Hall, which were common at the time of the fire and caused countless delays in exiting, are virtually nonexistent, according to Seton Hall’s director of Public Safety, Pat Linfante.
The father of Aaron Karol, one of the three men killed in the fire, was also present, and spoke about Aspiring Kindness, a foundation established by Karol’s friends in his honor. The foundation raises money for emergency workers.
“To our family, nothing could be more important,” than saving lives, Karol said. Karol said the foundation is planning to make its next donation to the South Orange Fire Department, where the money would go toward fire education classes.
For more information on ‘Aspiring Kindness,’ see www.aspiringkindness.og.
For more information on the movie, see http://afterthefiremovie.com.
Caitlin Carroll is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts designed to give students real-world experience.