Two of the survivors of the Seton Hall University arson of Jan. 19, 2000, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, will share their experiences at Keuka College Friday, Sept. 5.
Free and open to the public, the program begins at 7 p.m. in Norton Chapel. Simons and Llanos, who were freshman roommates, were severely burned during the fire. They will speak as part of the Office of Campus Safety’s fire safety training for the fall semester.
What started as a prank in the early morning hours in Seton Hall University’s freshman residence hall, Boland Hall, ended with three freshmen losing their lives and nearly 60 injured. Of the 58 student injuries, five were critical, including Simons and Llanos, and required extensive hospitalization.
“Shawn and Alvaro suffered extensive, disfiguring burns, and I am certain that seeing and listening to them will be an experience those in attendance will not soon forget,” said Pat Kasnick, director of campus safety.
At approximately 4:30 a.m. that morning, a fire alarm was received for the six-story Boland Hall in the security office at Seton Hall. The fire on the third floor quickly involved the furniture in the elevator lobby and adjoining area.
Students would later recount that false fire alarms were almost considered a way of life on the college campus, with the result that they tended to be largely ignored. Within minutes, however, students—including Simons and Llanos—became aware that there indeed was a fire. This time, it wasn’t a false alarm.
Scared, the roommates crawled in the direction that they were accustomed to going, not knowing that they were crawling right into the fire. If they had headed to the nearest exit, a stairwell they rarely used, there was the possibility they could have escaped the building without injury.
Losing each other in the blackened hallway, Simons crawled right through and past the fire, but not without his hands taking on third degree burns as his palms stuck to the sweltering floor tiles as he pushed for safety. He also suffered first and second degree burns to his head and face, bringing his percentage of body burned to 16 percent and an insurmountable amount of smoke inhalation. His face was so badly burned that doctors predicted he would be frighteningly disfigured. They feared his fingers, seared almost to the bone, would have to be amputated.
Llanos was hurt even more gravely. As he approached the burning lounge, Llanos saw a glimmer of light from the stairwell adjacent to the lounge. As he stood up to push the door open, a fireball erupted from the burning ceiling tiles, igniting his coat and causing third degree burns from his head to his torso. As he tumbled out into the hallway still ablaze, two resident assistants were able to put the fire out on Llanos, but not before he experienced burns on 56 percent of his body. Chunks of his once athletic frame were gone. From his waist up, nothing was spared
Simons endured months of physical and occupational therapy, while Llanos’ recovery process took years. Not only was it a physical toll on Llanos and Simons, but it was a mental and emotional roller coaster as well. Learning to deal with being comfortable in their new “burned” skin was a mission all in itself.
Two students who started the fire as a prank were indicted in mid-2003, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in late 2006, and were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in early 2007.
A film documenting the tragedy, After the Fire, was made in 2012. To view the trailer of the movie click here.