Sunday marked 20 years since the deadly Boland Hall Fire that killed three and left dozens injured, but the tragedy remains fresh in the minds of those who survived.
On Seton Hall University’s sleepy South Orange campus, the Jubilee Hall bells reverberate through the crisp January air, the three bells ringing as a poignant dedication to the three freshmen who lost their lives in Boland Hall – a noise that would have been wholly unfamiliar to students on campus 20 years ago.
A much more common sound then was the piercing shriek of dormitory fire alarms. By the start of the second semester, university officials said that there had been at least 18 false alarms in Boland Hall. Often times, the alarms were little more than pranks but became so chronic that some of the roughly 600 freshmen residents began to simply ignore them.
On the morning of Jan. 19, 2000, however, the alarm was real.
Though the source of the alarm would only burn for 10 minutes after firefighters arrived, the fire that broke out in the third-floor lounge of Boland Hall North ultimately took the lives of Aaron Karol, Frank Caltabilota and John Giunta, and injured over 50 other students, RAs and first responders. Four of those injured, three freshmen and one RA, suffered serious burns from the blaze.
In an opinion from 1996, four years before the Boland Fire, The Setonian’s editorial board called on resident students to evacuate from their buildings when they hear a fire alarm go off rather than ignore it after residents didn’t evacuate during a fire in Xavier Hall, thinking it was yet another false alarm. The fire injured no one, but it shook the nerves of the campus.
“The fire showed, if nothing else, that Seton Hall is not prepared to deal with a real fire,” The editorial read. “We’ve heard those alarms cry wolf so many times that they don’t mean anything. In all likelihood our attitudes won’t really change. Unfortunately, it takes a dramatic incident, like someone getting hurt, for people to take notice.”
The editorial goes on: “The only prudent advice is to remember that even though you may have heard it all before, that the next time you decide to hide under your bed could be your last.”
When Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos were placed in a room together in Boland Hall, to an outside observer it may not have seemed like a match made in heaven at first.
“I always tell people that Alvaro and I are complete opposites,” Simons joked, “I remember I was a messy person and Alvaro was a very clean person. There were times I would come in from class and on my side of the room my bed is made up and my shoes are placed nicely and I’m like, ‘did my mom come here?’ and he’s like, ‘no, I did it.”
Despite their difference in tidiness, though, they were united by a common background. Simons – who had been accepted to Cornell, Georgetown and Seton Hall, all on full rides – grew up just a few blocks away from campus in Newark. Llanos grew up in Patterson, just a short ride up the Garden State Parkway. Both were first generation college students.
“We shared some of the same musical tastes and some of the same taste in clothing and stuff like that. We had an immediate bond, even though we had just met each other,” he said.
It would be a bond that ultimately would grow in ways they could not imagine.
When the fire alarm cried out at around 4:30 am on January 19, 2000, Simons debated getting out of bed. He wasn’t the only one.
Reporting from The Setonian at the time revealed many students were slow to react to the alarm that morning. At least one student even slept through the alarms and the commotion of helicopters and emergency sirens just to later awaken and find that the entire building had been evacuated and cordoned off by police barriers and yellow caution tape.
“That first semester, we would have someone pull the alarms three or four times during the course of the week. Sometimes, depending on what night it was, it would be two or three times during the course of one night,” Simons said of the prank alarms, “and that built up to a level of complacency amongst many of the residents inside the building.”
It was only days after the semester started, but Simons remembered his resident assistant telling the third-floor residents of Boland Hall North that anyone who didn’t evacuate the building in a timely fashion when the alarm was pulled would be at risk of being charged a fine. So, on Jan. 19, Simons begrudgingly woke up his roommate and friend and the two dressed.
But while Simons and Llanos prepared to open the door to their room to evacuate into the dark, brisk January air, a grisly tragedy was playing out in the hallway.
“We had no idea what was happening outside of that door,” Simons said.
When they pulled open the door to their dorm to enter the hall, Simons described a “huge plume of black smoke” which nearly instantly smacked them in the face.
“We immediately shut the door and it was like, ‘oh my God, this is real,’” he remembered.
The source: a paper banner in the third-floor common lounge that had been partially torn down and lit by two other fellow Freshman, Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore, for the purposes of setting off the fire alarm.
As the banner smoldered unattended, it fell onto one of the couches, eventually spreading to three couches in total. According to a 2003 Grand Jury presentment, the fire alarm activated soon after the blaze started, and many witnesses recalled seeing a portion of one of the couches involved in the fire burning, creating some light smoky conditions in the first minutes.
At the time of the fire, Boland Hall was one of many college dorms across the state of New Jersey and the country that wasn’t sprinklered, as older buildings were not required to be retrofitted, allowing the fire to spread rapidly. “At that early stage of the fire, within a few minutes of its ignition, it was still possible to leave 3-North without encountering hazardous fire or smoke,” the Grand Jury found, but many students did not evacuate quickly enough, believing that the alarm was yet another prank.
Within four minutes of its ignition, the inferno manifested a thick, oily, black smoke so noxious that when one student attempted to evacuate the building via an emergency stairwell directly across the hall from him, he was felled almost immediately from the strength of the carbon monoxide in the air. He was later found by emergency responders in his room at the spot where he had fallen, dead of smoke inhalation.
The Grand Jury eventually concluded “that the flammability of the couches in the lounge was a major contributing factor to the deaths of the three young men, as well as to the injuries sustained by others.”
Within minutes the fire’s start, first responders had begun to arrive. Deputy Chief Michael Commins of the South Orange Fire Department was one of the first to arrive at the scene.
“You could see smoke coming out of every window out on the third floor,” he recalled.
“I was on the job about three years, so I’ve been [to campus] hundreds of times,” Commins said. “So, we pulled in and all the students were lined up by the [McNulty] gate, and they were all crying, screaming, telling us to hurry up. And I said to myself ‘oh, this is different.’”
Commins then began pulling students from the windows of the third floor as fire fighters inside the building began to work to tame the inferno. All in all, 93 students were pulled out of the third floor via a ladder truck.
Back within the building, Simons and Llanos had reverted to the fire training they remembered from their childhood years – the only training they knew – and opened the door back up. They dropped to the ground to avoid the smoke and blistering heat. Even close to the ground, though, the temperature was reaching an inhumane intensity of close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, according to officials with the South Orange Fire Department who responded that night.
“We ended up going to the way that we always went out the building, which was where the lounge was, where the elevators are,” Simons said. Unbeknownst to them they had crawled right into the heart of the fire, eventually getting separated in the commotion.
“Because we couldn’t see anything, I just remember blackness and just crawling on the floor,” he recounted, “Fire is nothing like how it looks on TV with this beautiful orange glow. When you’re in a fire that intense, it’s nothing but blackness. You cannot even see your hands in front of your face. I never saw any flames. I never saw any doors.”
One of the only things Simons recalls seeing through the murkiness of the smoke was the piercing early morning moonlight streaming through the window of a dorm room. He crawled over to it and yelled for help, but none was there.
“I would later realize that the side of the building I was on was not the side that many people would exit,” he said. “At that point I knew that there was an exit down at the other end of the hall and I just crawled down there, and someone was actually there. They had the door open, I guess they were like yelling trying to get people out, and I just got up, walked down the stairs and actually walked over into the cafeteria as if nothing had happened.”
After getting separated from Simons, Llanos was engulfed by a fire ball that erupted from the ceiling tiles as he made his way into an exit stairwell, leaving him with severe burns over 56% of his body.
Simons, on the other hand, was burned severely on his palms – which were singed by the scalding tile floors as he crawled right next to the fire – as well as on his head and face.
Both were transported to the St. Barnabas Medical Center Burn Unit in Livingston, N.J. where they were both placed into medically induced comas, in Simons’ case predominantly because of the immense amount of smoke inhalation he had incurred.
“I don’t remember actually being in the emergency room,” Simons said. “I don’t know if that point I was just kind of blacked out but the next thing I remember doing is waking up and realizing that I had these tubes in my throat and I couldn’t talk and I barely could move. Come to find out it was two and a half weeks after the fire.”
Llanos would remain in a coma for three months as doctors and nurses as St. Barnabas fought to save his life. Both faced months and years of rehabilitation.
Dana Christmas-McCain, a resident assistant hailed as the Angel of Boland Hall who knocked on her residents’ doors as the fire burned to help evacuate students, ultimately was burned on 60% of her body, according to reporting from The Setonian. Freshman Tom Pugliese also suffered burns from the fire.
“I had woken up early. I guess the fire started at 4:30, but I was awake before I was even called, which is very strange, I’m a terrific sleeper,” former President of Seton Hall Monsignor Robert Sheeran recalled of the day of the fire.
At the time of the blaze, Sheeran had been president for five years, and would serve another 10 after. Yet, he remembers that morning as not just one of the worst days of his tenure, but the worst of his life.
When Sheeran arrived at the scene of the fire around 5:00 am, the fire had already been knocked out. Still, he remembers the scene as “absolute chaos.”
The days that would ensue would be quite similar.
As local and national media descended on Seton Hall’s obscure campus, trying to piece together how such a tragedy could ensue on a college campus, Sheeran was meeting with the families of victims, visiting survivors in the hospital, and attending the funerals of the three young men who were lost. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Sheeran, along with Former Archbishop of Newark Theodore McCarrick, knelt before where each of the three boys lay, praying over them.
“It’s unspeakable to lose a child,” Sheeran said, “Each of the families had different reactions, but they just felt that the bottom fell out of their life. So, I was there as a priest, but also there as the head of the university to try to reassure them that we were going to do whatever we can to help.”
Yet the loss suffered on that fateful morning eventually led to changes in fire safety laws on college campuses in multiple states – a crusade that continues to this day led by the State of New Jersey and spearheaded predominantly by survivors of the Boland Hall Fire.
In the months after the fire, New Jersey passed the first mandatory dorm sprinkler law in the country, which provided funding to colleges and universities in the state install sprinklers in all college dormitories – regardless of how old they were.
“The potential for this to happen all across the state was great,” according to New Jersey State Fire Marshall Richard Mikutsky, but noted that the action that was spurred out of the Boland Hall Fire has undoubtedly saved countless more lives. “I think you just have to look at the changes that we put in place afterwards.”
Or, as Sheeran put it: “Out of the cross comes the resurrection.”
Ancient Greek folklore tells of a mighty bird who, from the burned ashes of his predecessor, is continually reborn – colloquially referred to as the Phoenix.
Much like the Phoenix, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos have grown into new men in the years since the fire. Now 38, Simons and Llanos both have families. Simons’ son toured Seton Hall just a few months ago as a prospective student.
For the last 10 years, the pair have taken their story to colleges and high schools around the country in the hopes of educating students about fire safety, but also to inspire with their story of recovery.
The two were inspired when they came to Seton Hall to screen the documentary about the Boland Hall Fire and their recovery – “After the Fire.”
“We ended up getting a lot of people coming out, and that’s when I decided, ‘hey, let’s open this up to any university across the country and see if they’re willing to learn from what we’ve gone through,’” Simons said.
The documentary was a hit at the second school they visited, Oregon State University.
“We came out on stage and there were like a thousand people at the program. Afterwards, there were about three or four hundred people who waited in line to just come and give us hugs and shake our hand and tell us how important our story was,” he recalled. “Alvaro and I decided on the plane ride home was that this is the purpose of what we went through. So, we can help other people and show them that it can happen anywhere.”
Ever since, they’ve made sharing their harrowing journey to college and high school students a full-time position. The two have enjoyed an especially close relationship with Montclair State University where they speak to two sessions of 2,000 incoming students at their orientation each year.
“Their work is critical to teaching young people the important life lessons that came out of the Seton Hall fire,” said Robert Ferrara, Montclair State University’s director of fire safety and a board member of the Center for Campus Fire Safety. “Their presentation always has a powerful impact on our students and it’s an eye-opener for them to hear the story from Shawn and Alvaro. They help students process the tragedy and use the forum to develop an awareness of fire safety – not just on campus, but anywhere students may be.”
“I always felt that Seton Hall should have done something like that and they didn’t,” Simons said, “Not to say we haven’t been on campus to speak, but I think over the last 10 years we’ve only been on campus maybe three times to do a presentation and there hasn’t been a huge turnout.”
Regardless, Simons still sees Seton Hall as his home.
“This is home to me. I still want to come on campus. It just feels like home to me.”