By: Caroline Firriolo
On Tuesday, September 20th, two guest speakers came to Catholic University of America to share their experience of one tragic night in college that left 3 students dead and over 50 students hospitalized and to advise how these situations can be prevented.
In the early morning of January 19, 2000, a Seton Hall University lounge broke out into flames after a prank in one of the dorm buildings went very wrong. Roommates Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos woke up to fire alarms and took their time to get dressed and prepare for the cold weather. Simons and Llanos explained that it wasn’t unusual for the fire alarm to go off 3 or 4 times in the middle of the night due to some college kids triggering it as a joke. When the fire alarm went off 16 years ago, it didn’t seem real until the men opened their doors to a hallway filled with thick black smoke. When the fire alarms went off, the students went through their normal routes through the building, which usually took them through the lounge.
“We didn’t know where [the nearest exit] was,” Simons said. “We went out the way we always went, not the nearest exit…We were prisoner to routine.”
After the tragedy, both Simons and Llanos experienced a long, difficult recovery. That night left them both with skin burn injuries. Simons hands were noticeably burned and Alvaro Llanos had an extensive five year recovery. Llanos spent three months in a coma, had more than 30 surgeries, countless hours of physical therapy, and 56 percent of his body was severely burned.
The survivors have spent 5 years traveling the country, talking about their experience. This was sparked after the release of their documentary, “After the Fire.” Since then, schools have asked for the duo to speak about fire safety. Since their first event, they have visited more than 200 schools, and have averaged to speak to more than 100,000 students a year. Rather than telling the students to “stop, drop, and roll” the two tell students how to prevent such an action and how to be aware to get out of such an environment.
Simons and Llanos stated that the presentation is “more than about a fire. It’s about identity, depression, overcoming tragedy, forgiveness, recovery…”
Their main focus of the presentation is to promote awareness and prepare young college students for situations such as this. The men hope to help audiences understand that life is precious and the young are not invincible. Their goal is to convey that what happened to them is bigger than just what happened inside the residence hall 16 years ago. The events of that night lead to a long emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental recovery.
“I don’t feel like I know what to do. I wouldn’t know what to do or where to go or how I would get out,” said junior Erin Flesishman.
Since January of 2000, The Center for Campus Fire Safety recorded that there have been 89 fatal fires that have taken place in a college community with over 120 victims. After the Seton Hall University fire in 2000, the state of New Jersey has put a new law into place that requires fire sprinklers in every room on campus. No other state or district has a law like this.
Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos have learned to overcome their hardships and to see their experiences as ways to promote awareness and to help people understand how to stay smart and alert in a situation such as that, whether it be a fire or a car crash or another tragic event.