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Belleville High School Seniors Learn Hard Lessons From Seton Hall Fire Survivors

By rlsmetro on

Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos crawled through flames that reached 1,600 degrees down a hallway so choked with smoke that they couldn't see an inch in front of them. 

Their hope is that their scars - visible and otherwise - suffered while trying to get to safety during one of the deadliest college dormitory fires in history could serve as a cautionary tale to the 350 or so seniors assembled in the Belleville High School auditorium on Thursday.

These college-bound students listened as the two survivors of the fatal Seton Hall University blaze on January 19, 2000, warned them of what could happen if they aren't serious about fire safety. 

Belleville High School Presentation

During a presentation that lasted about 90 minutes, Simons and Llanos implored the students to follow their school of choice's fire safety rules - which typically prohibit candles, space heaters, smoking, unsupervised cooking and other items and activities that commonly lead to fires.

In fact, they urged the Belleville students that once they unpack their big-screen TVs and clothes in their dorm rooms, go take the time to identify the fire exits and have a plan in case of emergency.

And, perhaps above all else, pay heed to each and every fire alarm, false or not.

Simons and Llanos recalled their harrowing story at Boland Hall. They were both trying to catch a few hours' sleep before their morning classes after they had stayed up late to celebrate the Seton Hall men's basketball team's big victory over St. John's. An early morning fire alarm, at 4:30 a.m., sounded. 

"We didn't get up right away because there had been so many false alarms, we figured this was just another one," Simons said.

When they opened the dorm door, they were met by a wall of smoke and intense heat.

They know now that it would have been better had they simply closed the door and stayed in their room. The rooms were constructed with concrete and other materials that don't easily burn.

However, without a predetermined escape plan or any earlier thoughts of fire safety, they panicked. They tried to crawl for safety down the dorm hall before being rescued by a resident assistant.

They got outside but were badly burned. It would be the beginning of an arduous, often tortuous recovery period that would last years. 

Their journeys were littered with sobbing, surgeries and setbacks. They were in the burn unit for months. They were in comas. They nearly died. Their loved ones suffered, too.

Belleville High School Presentation

"These were important messages because our high school seniors are very soon going to move on to college, where they will enjoy greater personal freedom," said Dr. Richard Tomko, the Belleville Superintendent of Schools. 

"That personal freedom comes with a lot of responsibility. One big thing I hope they took away from this presentation by Shawn and Alvaro is that fire safety is a big responsibility and that their choices can carry life-or-death consequences."

Simons suffered burns over about 15% of his body, and Llanos about 56%, trying to flee a fire that killed three people, injured 56 and was started by a couple of drunken students who were playing a senseless prank in a lobby, setting fire to a banner so all the sleeping students would be sent outside in 20-degree weather.

The Belleville students watched a 40-minute video that traced these two young men's journeys of uncommon determination and dignity in the face of great heartache as they steadily recovered. 

"That's the other message we want to send to the students with Shawn and Alvaro's presentation," said Caleb Rhodes, the Principal of Belleville High School. 

"No odds are too great to achieve what we want in life, and there is no challenge that you cannot overcome. We hope our students are inspired by these two men who are today husbands, fathers, college graduates, authors and accomplished public speakers."

Belleville High School Presentation

In particular, Llanos offered a touching message of forgiveness.

When asked by a Belleville High School student if they forgave the two fellow students who plead guilty to starting the fire, Alvaro said he remembers the moment when he let go of his anger and resentment.

"I decided that the hate I had felt didn't serve me," he told the students. "It was like me drinking poison and expecting it to somehow hurt them. I knew I had to leave it behind because it didn't serve me anymore."