For Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, Jan. 19, 2000 was not just another bitterly cold winter night. In the early-morning hours, arsonists set fire to a couch in the student lounge of the Boland Hall dormitory at Seton Hall University. The threatening blaze killed three people and injured 58 others. Simons and Llanos, who were freshman roommates at the time, were two of the most critically burned survivors.
On March 3, College at Florham students and staff had the unique opportunity to listen to Simons’ story. FDU’s Diversity Council, Office of Campus Life and Educational Opportunity Fund sponsored the event, which attracted over 50 audience members.
Everyone in attendance received Robin Gaby Fisher’s book, “After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival.”
Fisher, an award-winning news and feature writer for The Star-Ledger, along with staff photographer Matt Rainey, followed and witnessed every important step during Simons’ and Llanos’ treatment and recovery after the tragic event. Fisher and Rainey’s coverage of the men’s excruciating recovery ran in the Ledger as a seven-part series.
In 2001, Rainey won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography because of his photos covering their story.
In August of 2008, Fisher published “After the Fire,” which details the lives of Simons and Llanos. According to Fisher’s Web site, her writing is “[h]onest and intimate in her account of the stress of distraught parents, the intense strain upon marriages and relationships, the prolonged suffering and multiple surgeries of the survivors and the evolving friendship of the accidental roommates.”
During the March 3 discussion, Simons gave FDU students an inside look into his inspirational story and the lessons that can be learned.
Normally, Simons said he would have run out if the fire alarm had gone off, but students in the Boland dormitory had been pulling the alarm as a prank almost every week, so he assumed it was just another false alarm.
“We just went to sleep about an hour ago so we took our time,” Simons said. “When we reached the door, a big cloud of smoke came into the room.
“I can’t really remember anything during the fire. It was just complete silence,” Simons said. “I was yelling for help. It was like a dream, but no one was there.”
Simons immediately crawled out of his room toward the elevator he always took, but the lounge was where the fire was.
“Basically, I crawled right into the fire,” he said. “I didn’t actually get burned, but the heat was so intense my hands were burnt from touching the ground.”
Eventually he made it to another room and was able to scream out the window for help.
“A voice came and said ‘Get back down and crawl to your left, there will be a door on your right,’” Simons said. “No one ever came forward, but my mother always says it was my angel that said that.”
After exiting the fire, Simons and numerous other victims, were rushed to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
“It was one of the worst pains in my life,” Simons said. “I remember the ride to Saint Barnabas, but then I blacked out and ended up in a coma for 13 days.”
Simons’ roommate, Llanos, was considered the most critical patient upon arriving at the Saint Barnabas burn unit.
“If 50 percent of your body or more is burned, they say you aren’t going to make it,” said Simons. “Al was 60 percent completely from his neck down.”
Llanos was given an almost zero percent chance of survival and ended up being in a coma for three months, Simons said. He added that because of all the bandaging, the only thing you could see on Llanos were his eyes and toes.
“It was a lot to go through,” Simons said. “But at the burn unit, I would see other people and thought it could be worse.
“Me and Al had been so cool that I thought when or if he wakes up, I could be there for him,” said Simons.
According to a 2006 New York Times article, more than three years after the fire had burned more than half his body, Llanos went back to school and had more than 30 operations. “Al stopped getting surgeries about two years ago and he was in the hospital for almost a year,” said Simons, who left the hospital after a month.
Although they were out of the hospital and moving on, their lives would be forever changed.
“It even got to the point when people were staring at me and I would ask, ‘Would you like to know what happened?’” Simons said. “I think that got to Al.”
One of the most powerful pictures in Rainey’s photo slideshow is an image of Llanos walking through a hall with a young girl staring at his scars.
“I figured we were going to be like this the rest of our lives, so I said ‘Al, you just have to be comfortable in your own skin,’” said Simons.
According to a May 2009 Star-Ledger article, the two arsonists, Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore, who lived across the hall from Simons and Llanos, were indicted in 2003 on charges of felony murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault and arson. The men entered a plea-deal that dismissed all of the homicidal and assault charges, leading them to receive a reduced arson sentence. In March of 2009, Ryan was granted parole and walked out after serving two years and four months of a five-year sentence, according to the Ledger.
“A lot of the victims were upset because we wanted justice,” Simons said. “I wanted justice for those parents that lost their children.”
Llanos went on to get married and have two kids. Simons graduated from Seton Hall, on time, in 2003.
“I’m glad it happened to us because we were strong enough to go through it,” Simons said. “I wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone.”
Simons said that, after the fire, a law was enacted requiring that all dorm rooms have fire sprinklers in them. “We needed this tragedy to happen to make you guys safe,” he told the FDU crowd.
After the discussion, Simons took time to sign copies of the “After the Fire” and shook hands with everyone.