Fire survivors share story with high school students

Staff Writer

 Alvaro Llanos speaks to Old Bridge High school seniors as Shawn Simons looks on. Llanos and Simons visited the high school on May 26 sharing their harrowing story of survival and perseverance after suffering severe burns from the fatal Seton Hall University dormitory fire.  PHOTO COURTESY OF LORI LUICCI Alvaro Llanos speaks to Old Bridge High school seniors as Shawn Simons looks on. Llanos and Simons visited the high school on May 26 sharing their harrowing story of survival and perseverance after suffering severe burns from the fatal Seton Hall University dormitory fire. PHOTO COURTESY OF LORI LUICCI Since the fatal Seton Hall University dormitory fire 15 years ago, only three states have passed mandatory legislation for all dormitories to be outfitted with sprinkler systems — New Jersey, North Carolina and Kentucky.

“All three states have had tragedies occur that prompted the legislation,” said Alvaro Llanos, who was critically injured in the Seton Hall blaze.

New Jersey was the first in the nation to enact a law requiring sprinklers in all dormitories and boarding schools.

Llanos and his former Seton Hall roommate, Shawn Simons, who was also critically injured, said they have been to Washington, D.C., urging lawmakers to follow suit. They noted that all 50 states do require sprinkler systems in new dormitory construction projects.

The two former freshman roommates have traveled the country and Canada sharing their harrowing story of survival after suffering severe burns with students at college campuses, and last year they started sharing their story with high school seniors heading off to college.

Llanos and Simons visited Old Bridge High School on May 26 to share their story with the senior class through a moving 53- minute documentary, “After the Fire: A True Story of Heroes and Cowards,” directed by Guido Verweyen. A Q&A session followed.

Tom Gerity, fire marshal and administrator of Old Bridge Fire District No. 2, reached out to Llanos and Simons, and sponsored their visit to the high school.

He said Llanos and Simons, who were 18- year-olds at the time, would give a whole different focus on fire survival.

Simons said in no way are they experts in fire safety; however, he said they have learned so much of what they should have, or could have, done over the years, whether it is to look for the closest exit signs or heed a fire alarm under any circumstance.

He said in 2000, Boland Hall, the freshman dormitory at Seton Hall, experienced a number of false fire alarms — sometimes four to five times a day — especially during finals week in December 1999.

Simons said he and Llanos were typical of the many students who were tired of the false alarms and sometimes didn’t go outside when they heard the alarm. There was a $100 fine if a student did not come out of the building during a fire alarm.

“We had become complacent and assumed every fire alarm was false,” he said.

During the cold early morning hours on Jan. 19, 2000, the mindsets of the 650 students in Boland Hall were no different. However, this fire alarm was different than the others. A banner in the third-floor lounge had been deliberately set on fire, which quickly erupted through the third floor of Boland Hall, sending students into a panic. The dormitory has six floors.

A fire alarm was not pulled until seven to eight minutes after the fire was set, Simons said.

Some students jumped out of their dorm room windows; some were trapped in their rooms; and others, like Simons and Llanos, willed their way through the smoke-filled hallways — temperatures reaching near 1,600 degrees — in an effort to make it out of the dormitory hall.

“We went toward the elevators, the way we would always go out of the dormitory,” said Simons.

In the end, three freshman students were found dead — Frank Caltabilota Jr. of West Long Branch, John Giunta of Vineland, and Aaron Karol of Green Brook. All three of their bodies were discovered on the third floor where the fire originated. Fifty-eight other students were injured.

Two fellow students, Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan, were found to have set the banner in the lounge on fire as a prank after celebrating a victory by the university’s basketball team the night before.

LePore and Ryan were charged in 2003 and pleaded guilty in 2006 after reaching a plea deal with county prosecutors, which included serving prison terms of no more than five years. Students asked Llanos and Simons if they have been in contact with LePore and Ryan or harbor any ill feelings toward them. They said they haven’t heard anything from the two men.

Simons said he personally does not harbor any ill feelings.

“I think we had enough people around us to do that for us,” he said. “It was a stupid prank gone wrong. I don’t think they maliciously intended to kill three people and injure so many.”

Llanos suffered burns on more than 58 percent of his body, and Simons suffered burns on more than 16 percent of his body. Both men faced near death due to smoke inhalation and the burns.

Remnants of their burns are still visible today; however, thanks to the team of doctors, nurses and staff at the St. Barnabas Burn Unit in Livingston, the only issues they have today are sensitivity to the sun because of the many skin grafts they received.

“We have to make sure we wear long sleeves in the sun,” Simons said.

The 2012 documentary details the journey of Llanos and Simons from the fateful day of the dormitory fire to their survival.

The documentary includes graphic photos of Llanos and Simons as they lay on hospital gurneys fighting for their lives as well as the roller coaster of emotions of their family members initially learning what had happened to their loved ones.

In the 2008 book “After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival” written by Robin Gaby Fisher, a reporter for The Star- Ledger, Hani Mansour, the medical director at Saint Barnabas, now retired, said the families had a long road ahead of them.

“In some ways, their journey would be more difficult than their children’s,” he said. “For the parents, there was little to do but wait and worry.”

It also documented the investigation that culminated in the charges against LePore and Ryan and the heartbreak of the families of Giunta, Caltabilota and Karol, who were lost in the blaze.

“It is still very emotional for the parents of our classmates who were lost,” Simons said.

Six months after the fire, Simons told the high school seniors that, against his doctor’s orders, he returned to school and was able to graduate with his class. Simons, who received a business management degree, received a round of applause from the students.

Llanos said he unfortunately did not get to finish college, but has taken classes toward his degree between traveling across the country with Simons. His recovery involved over 30 surgeries.

He said because of their full-time job speaking to colleges and high schools, he has taken communication classes to hone the skill of public speaking.

“I have to keep up with Shawn, the center of attention,” he said, which brought laughter from the students.

Simons, who grew up in Newark, and Llanos, who grew up in Paterson, met just four months prior to the fatal fire at Seton Hall, but have become inseparable through their experience.

“Our kids call each other either ‘Uncle Shawn’ or ‘Uncle Alvaro,’ ” Llanos said.

Simons said the purpose of their presentation is not to say students should not have fun when they go off to college, but just to be aware and responsible in their surroundings.

“We were in your shoes,” he told the seniors.

Simons said although a sprinkler system is good to have, one must not rely on a sprinkler system in a case of a fire.

“Like an airbag in a car, there are many cases people are injured in car crashes when the airbag does not deploy,” he said.

Simons and Llanos, who live in New Jersey, received hugs, handshakes and had selfies taken with them after the program.

Seniors Amber Huebner said they were moved by the documentary.

“I cried hysterically through most of it. … It was emotional,” Huebner said. “Some of us had to turn away.”

Huebner was just 4 years old when the Seton Hall fire occurred.

“I didn’t know the story. … It was eyeopening,” she said.