BELLEVILLE, NJ — Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos crawled through flames that reached 1,600 degrees down a hallway so choked with smoke that they couldn’t see an inch in front of them.
Their hope is that their scars — visible and otherwise — suffered while trying to get to safety during one of the deadliest college dormitory fires in history could serve as a cautionary tale to the 350 or so seniors assembled in the Belleville High School auditorium on Thursday, Dec. 9.
These college-bound students listened as the two survivors of the fatal Seton Hall University blaze on Jan. 19, 2000, warned them of what can happen if they aren’t serious about fire safety.
During a presentation that lasted approximately 90 minutes, Simons and Llanos implored the students to follow their school-of-choice’s fire safety rules, which typically prohibit candles, space heaters, smoking, unsupervised cooking, and other items and activities that commonly lead to fires.
In fact, they urged the Belleville students that, once they unpack their big screen TVs and clothes in their dorm rooms, go take the time to identify the fire exits and have a plan in case of emergency.
And, perhaps above all else, pay heed to each and every fire alarm, false or not.
Simons and Llanos recalled their harrowing story at Boland Hall. They were both trying to catch a few hours’ sleep before their morning classes after they had stayed up late to celebrate the Seton Hall men’s basketball team’s big victory over St. John’s. An early morning fire alarm, at 4:30 a.m., sounded.
“We didn’t get up right away because there had been so many false alarms, we figured this was just another one,” Simons said.
When they opened the dorm door, they were met by a wall of smoke and intense heat.
They know now that it would have been better had they simply closed the door and stayed in their room. The rooms were constructed with concrete and other material that don’t easily burn.
However, without a predetermined escape plan or any earlier thoughts of fire safety, they panicked. They tried to crawl for safety down the dorm hall before being rescued by a resident assistant.
They got outside, but were badly burned. It was the beginning of an arduous, often tortuous recovery period that lasted for years. Their journeys were littered with surgeries and setbacks. They were in the burn unit for months. They were in comas and they nearly died.
“These were important messages because our high school seniors are very soon going to move on to college, where they will enjoy greater personal freedom,” Superintendent of Schools Richard Tomko said. “That personal freedom comes with a lot of responsibility. One big thing I hope they took away from this presentation by Shawn and Alvaro is that fire safety is a big responsibility and that their choices can carry life-or-death consequences.”
Simons suffered burns over about 15 percent of his body and Llanos over about 56 percent of his body while trying to flee the fire that killed three people, injured 56 and was started by a couple of students who were playing a prank in a lobby by setting fire to a banner so all the sleeping students would be sent outside in 20-degree weather.
The Belleville students watched a 40-minute video that traced the Simons and Llanos’ journeys following the fire.
“That’s the other message we want to send to the students with Shawn and Alvaro’s presentation,” Principal Caleb Rhodes said. “No odds are too great to achieve what we want in life and there is no challenge that you cannot overcome. We hope our students are inspired by these two men who are today husbands, fathers, college graduates, authors and accomplished public speakers.”
When asked by a Belleville High School student if they forgave the two fellow students who pleaded guilty to starting the fire, Llanos said he remembers the moment when he let go of his anger and resentment.
“I decided that the hate I had felt didn’t serve me,” he told the students. “It was like me drinking poison and expecting it to somehow hurt them. I knew I had to leave it behind because it didn’t serve me anymore.”
Photos Courtesy of Belleville School District