ROXBURY, NJ - Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, two students who suffered severe burns in the Seton Hall University fire 17 years ago, visited Roxbury High School on Thursday to share their inspirational story and to deliver a cautionary message to all prospective college students.
More than 300 Roxbury seniors and a handful of juniors listened to Simons and Llanos, whose appearance was part of a fire prevention presentation made possible by the Roxbury Fire Prevention Bureau.
Roxbury Fire Official Michael Pellek received a grant from FM Global Insurance to bring to the high school the After the Fire: A True Story of Heroes and Cowards program. The initiative, geared toward high school and college students, discusses the trials and tribulations endured by Simons Llanos due to a senseless prank gone wrong.
“Mr. Pellek has been instrumental in bringing this program to our students," said Roxbury High School Principal Jeff Swanson. "He suggests that many people – especially young people who think it will not happen to them – do not give fire safety a lot of thought. But it is so important to be aware of potential hazards, to have a plan in place and to treat every alarm as if it’s the real thing, no matter how annoying it might seem.”
The presentation began with the hour-long film in which Simons and Llanos shared their experiences from the night of the fire through the long emotional, spiritual and physical recovery as well as the arson investigation into the matter.
The incident took place 17 years ago this month. Seton Hall freshmen and roommates Simons and Llanos were awakened around 4:30 a.m. to the sound of fire alarms in Boland Residence Hall. The students figured the alarms would turn out to be nothing, since the fire alarm had been pulled by pranksters at least once a week causing the 600 students in the dorm to dress and evacuate each time. They knew if they did not go out for a fire alarm they would be fined $100, but they took their time getting their clothes and jackets on to go out into the bitter January cold that early morning.
However, Simons and Llanos realized, upon opening their dorm door, that it was no false alarm. Thick, black smoke hit them immediately. At the fire's center, temperatures were close to 1,600 degrees.
As they were taught, the young men got low and crawled to a nearby exit. Nevertheless, Simons suffered third-degree burns to his hands - as his palms stuck to the intensely hot floor - and first- and second-degree burns to his head and face, the parts of his body that weren’t covered by clothes.
Llanos was critically burned over 56 percent of his body when his jacket caught fire from a falling ceiling tile. He spent three months in a coma.
The blaze began when a pair of students set fire to a bulletin board banner as a drunken frat prank after a surprising Big East win by the Seton Hall basketball team. The prank injured 58 people, including firefighters, and three boys dead.
At Thursday's session, the former students shared their long painful experiences during their recovery process and their journey back. This event altered the courses of their lives and they share with young adults what they’ve learned and explain what the students should look out for as they prepare to go off to college.
More than 200 presentations are given around the country and in Canada each year. Simons and Llanos said they hope students listen learn the directives given them when they are in new situations like moving into a dorm room. They stressed the importance of being aware of surroundings, knowing exits and remembering that stupid pranks can have serious consequences.
It took a tragedy like the Seton Hall University dorm fire to get laws changed, they said. Since the event, fire sprinklers above every bed in every dorm are now the standard in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Oklahoma colleges and universities.
Simons recommended all students looking at colleges investigate the fire procedures and crime reports before selecting a school. Many colleges implemented the fire sprinkler system after the Seton Hall blaze but it is still not required by law in most states and older dorms can be grandfathered in where the sprinklers don’t need to be installed.
Llanos and Simons advised students to not become complacent, to always evacuate when alarms go off, to know their surroundings, to know the closest exits, and to count the number of doors in the dorm or hotel to reach the exit.
The pair also suggested people always have two ways out of their residences. Most off-campus living situations are not monitored, inspected, or required to have the same standards as on-campus living, they noted.