Fire 'was like a living hell'
Victims of college blaze hope their painful tale hits home with audience
CHAMPAIGN — As 18-year-olds away from home for the first time, the last thing on the minds of college freshmen Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos was fire safety.
But on Jan. 19, 2000, they learned that the umpteenth fire alarm of their first semester in a dormitory at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., was not a prank as so many others had been. It was a real warning of a real fire that was started as a prank.
The fire killed three people from their dormitory and injured 58 others, including Simons and Llanos. Seven years later, two men were convicted of arson and each sentenced to five years in prison, but both served less than their full sentences.
"This night changed my life forever. I remember it like it was yesterday. We weren't prepared for a fire," said Llanos, who had not been expected to survive the scarring burns over 56 percent of his body. "It was our first taste of independence. We were worried about the next class, the next party. Fire safety was far from our minds."
"It was like a living hell to escape that building that night. We were two 18-year-old kids who thought nothing could happen to us," added Simons.
About four years ago, the now 32-year-old married men who each have two children decided to become motivational speakers, sharing their horrific experience, the message of fire safety, and the will to overcome tremendous obstacles.
On Thursday, they captivated about 80 people at the monthly meeting of the Central Illinois Rental Property Professionals, showing a 53-minute documentary about their experience titled "After the Fire" by Guido Verweyen.
They also answered questions and signed copies of their book: "After The Fire."
The two men are scheduled to speak today to the annual Explorer Cadet Fire School conference at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. Llanos said this is their third trip to Champaign. He lives in North Haledon, N.J. Simons lives in Roselle, N.J.
"The hope is that people start thinking about their properties," said Christy Gibas, president of the Central Illinois Rental Property Professionals and owner of the Champaign-based Neves Group. "This stuff happens. We just had a fire in an apartment Sunday. We've never had one before."
Simons said he and Llanos often talk with college-age students, reminding them to look for safe properties when they are renting and to pay attention to their surroundings in college housing. He said they've spoken at about 200 colleges.
"People feel as if nothing can happen to them. When we were sent to college, our parents didn't think about fire safety or fire prevention," he said.
"We use our story to teach students and to prove that whatever obstacles you have in life, you can still overcome them," said Simons, who sustained burns on 16 percent of his body.
"We thought it was just another fire alarm," Llanos said. But after he and Simons pulled on clothing and opened the door, they were hit with a wall of black smoke. Falling to their knees, they did exactly what they should not have.
"We went toward the fire," he said, explaining that they took the normal route to the right toward the elevator they routinely used instead of going left two doors to the stairwell.
The superheated floor was like "crawling on red hot coal, and then it got hotter," Simons said.
After losing sight of Simons, Llanos said he eventually got down three flights of stairs.
"I remember seeing my skin peeling. Three months later I woke up from a morphine-induced coma. I had to relearn all these things that were so simple," he said of walking and eating. He also had to learn how to be seen in public after being horribly disfigured.
"Before society can accept you, you have to learn to accept yourself," said Llanos, adding that his wife has helped tremendously with that part of his healing. "I'm not passionate about public speaking. I am passionate about sharing my story."
The story of Simons' and Llanos' recovery was documented by staff writer Robin Fisher and staff photographer Matt Rainey of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., who spent more than eight months following the teens almost daily. Their work resulted in a seven-part series in September 2000 and a 2001 Pulitzer for photography for Rainey.
Simons said he and Llanos watch the documentary, made more than 10 years later, several times a week as they travel the country. Each time they are struck at the effect their suffering had on their families.
"Al and I are parents now," said Simons. "To see what everyone was going through is still unbelievable. It was such a tedious and painful process to go through. It's about pulling together and gathering what's around you — your family, your faith, your religion."
He called the medical staff at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., where they spent months, "angels" who "just wanted us to go back to having a normal life."
Asked if they hate the two men convicted of the deadly deed, they are diplomatic.
"Alvaro and I never had malice toward them. Deep in my heart, I thought it was a prank. Our biggest issue is they stonewalled the investigation for so many years, hiding behind their parents and high-powered attorneys," Simons said.