By Evan LeBlanc
Shawn Simons, one of the survivors of the tragic Seton Hall University dormitory fire spoke to a theatre of journalism majors in Bradley Hall on Nov 18. The event was moderated by journalist and Rutgers-Newark professor and head of the journalism department Robin Gaby Fisher, author of the Pulitzer Prize- finalist story and New York Times bestseller “After The Fire; A True Story of Friendship and Survival.” The book covers the friendship of both Simons, whose hands were left scarred by the flames and Alvaro Llanos, who suffered third-degree burns to around 60 percent of his body. Fisher was the first to report on the blaze that killed three and injured a dozen others at the South Orange university on Jan 19, 2000.
According to an article in the The New York Times, authorities said the fire began at 4:30 am in a third-floor common room in the universities freshman dorm residence Boland Hall. Authorities concluded that the cause of the fire was one of the couches in the lounge was set ablaze by Joseph Lepore and Sean Ryan, who were later sentenced to 18 months and 21 months respectively for the crime.
The event started with the showing of Guido Verweyen’s documentary, “After the Fire; A True Story of Heroes and Cowards” and also included an excerpt read from the book by Simons.
“Even sitting here reading this to you guys, you really can’t encompass what we went through,” Simons said. “To be 18 years old feeling as if your indestructible, nothing’s going to happen to you, you had so many false alarms and to open up that door and see that smoke pour in your room and to try to escape that building and crawl down that hallway it was really something unimaginable,” Simons said.
Fisher, who reported the story of the two victims at Saint Barnabas’ Burn Unit in Livingston described how she overcame the ethical and emotional obstacles she faced with the reporting on Llanos and Simons.
“As a journalist you really feel like a slug in there trying to pitch a story,” Fisher said. “We spent seven days a week, twelve to fifteen hours a day for nine months with them,” Fisher said.
Thirteen years later, Llanos and Simons travel around the country speaking to universities along with lobbying Congress to pass a law making it mandatory all college dorms are equipped with working sprinkler systems.
“I thought it was fantastic, it was a message students can really relate to,” sophomore Kumal Nischal said of the event.
“Being able to be in an comfortable environment but also something so real and powerful; so to have the opportunity to engage him in a press conference format it was very emotional and heart felt as well.” Nischal said.