It was around 4:30 a.m. when a student was seen stumbling out of a dormitory at Seton Hall University, the six-story building violently engulfed in dense, black smoke and rippling flame.
This individual was one of many living in Boland Hall at SHU in South Orange, New Jersey on Jan. 19, 2000 — the same night that two fraternity brothers set fire to a banner in a hall lounge. Lighting the banner ignited the fire that killed three students, injured 56 others and forced Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons into the most difficult battles of their lives.
“When we opened our door that night, all we saw was a wall of black smoke…so we did what you are taught to do as a kid — got down on our hands and knees and crawled to the closest exit,” Simons said.
On Oct. 10, UD welcomed the men to share their heroic story. The two are now lifelong friends after suffering through the tragedy and recovery process side by side.
“Today, we are bonded for life — we will always be survivors,” Simons said.
Llanos and Simons, both first-generation college students from inner city New Jersey, were randomly assigned roommates in Boland Hall their freshmen year when the incident occurred. Of the many victims, they suffered some of the worst burns and faced years of painful recovery. They say that the support they provided one another is what got them through the journey.
“We share our story anywhere between 200 and 225 times a year to encourage fire safety on college campuses,” Simons said.
Years after the tragedy, the duo describes how they live their lives with considerably more caution than most people; keeping an eye out for the closest emergency exit and scanning for the fire extinguisher whenever they enter a room. In their presentations, they radiate a sense of hope and inspiration, expressing that there can be life after adversity.
“We all need to learn to love ourselves a little more. Our scars and flaws make us who we are. So today, when I look in the mirror I say, ‘Damn, I make these scars look good,’” Llanos said.