UNION, NJ – Nineteen years ago, Seton Hall freshmen Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos were awakened to the sounds of fire alarms in their dorm. The fire that engulfed the Boland Residence Hall left Simons with third-degree burns to his hands, and first- and second-degree burns to his head and face. Llanos was critically burned over 56 percent of his body. He spent three months in a coma.
Now Simons and Llanos travel the country sharing their story.
On Tuesday, Union High School seniors heard the story of the Seton Hall fire from Simons and Llanos and watched a screening of the film “After the Fire: A True Story of Heroes and Cowards”.
Prior to the film, Simons and Llanos, addressed the students. “On January 19, 2000, three students died and more than 50 were injured in one of the deadliest college dormitory fires in U.S. history." Llanos said two students accused of starting the fire were indicted in 2003, prosecuted in 2006, and sentenced in 2007.
“The fire began about 4:30 a.m. when most of the students were asleep,” said Llanos. “It started with three couches in the third-floor lounge and approached temperatures of 1500 degrees in less than five minutes.” Llanos said a few students attempted to escape through thick smoke in the staircases and a few jumped more than 40 feet to the ground. Aaron Karol and Frank Caltabilota died of thermal injuries, and John Giunta died of smoke inhalation. Fifty-eight students and firefighters were injured.
“Shawn and I are here today to share our journey from this tragic night and became advocates for fire safety and prevention and talk about overcoming adversity,” said Llanos.
Simons addressed the students about the film they were about to see. “You’ll see the recovery efforts that Alvaro and I had to endure. You’re going to see what our parents were going through; what our community was going through.” Simons said he and Alvaro refer to the nurses and doctors who cared for them at Saint Barnabas Medical Center their angels because “they took us under their wings as if we were their own children.”
Simons said the film will address the arson and criminal investigation. “This was a fire set by two of our classmates as a drunken fraternity prank. One night after we beat one of our rival basketball teams, like what happens on many college campuses across this country, the students wanted to celebrate the victory. But these two guys did something that not only changed our lives forever, but it had a major impact on the rest of their lives as well.” Simons said Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore “did the cowardly thing of setting the fire and not trying to put it out. They didn’t pull the alarms or try to warn anyone, and then they lied about it for over seven years.”
Simons said when parents send their students off to college, they expect them to get an education, to socialize, to start a career. “But the number one thing that a parent expects is that you’re going to come back home. And three of our classmates did not have that opportunity.”
In response to the Bolland Hall fire, New Jersey enacted the first mandatory residence hall sprinkler law in the nation. "Unfortunately, New Jersey is only one of four states across the country that has these mandatory fire sprinkler laws," said Simons.
“It’s important for high school students on their way to college and out into the world to hear this story,” said Union Fire Chief Mike Scanio. Addressing the high school seniors, Scanio said students in elementary school take a trip to the firehouse or see a fire engine up close and learn about fire safety, including ‘stop, drop and roll’, ‘get out and stay out’ and dialing 911. “But that was it, and you never heard another discussion about fire safety. I felt it was important to bring this program to our seniors,” said Scanio.
The presentation was funded by the Union Fire Department.