Through The Flames Lies Hope

The story of two fire survivors at Seton Hall raises fire safety awareness

Through The Flames Lies Hope
Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons, two former Seton Hall University students and survivors of the Seton Hall fire on January 19, 2000.
Rose Marie Kitchen

"Beep... Beep" the fire alarm goes off. Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons, two former Seton Hall University students,  looked at each other and just thought it was another false alarm, so they both took their time leaving the building. Simons opened up the door and suddenly a cloud of black smoke hit him in the face and he no longer thought it was just a false alarm. They were faced with the horrifying truth that the building was on fire. This was their sad reality that they had no choice but to face on January 19, 2000. As nearly 600 freshmen slept in the six-story residency building, their worst nightmare was happening on the other end, on the third floor lounge.

Llanos and Simons shared the mindset of many who thought the fire was just a false alarm, identical to the thirty or more false alarms that had occurred the previous semester. Llanos and Simons’ room was room 3028 on the third floor ---- the same floor where the fire was raging and intensely heating up. It took the 18 year old roommates ten minutes to get dressed and leave the dorm. When Simons opened the door and the black smoke hit him, he immediately shut the door. They got on their hands and knees and crawled out the room, going the one way they were accustomed to going every single day. Going that way forced them directly into the fast raging fire.

The temperatures that reached 16,000 degrees Fahrenheit continued to grow. As Simons and Llanos tried to escape and follow each other, they could not and lost each other in the smoke. Simons’ hands were burning from the inside out as he placed his hands on the tiles trying to crawl out the exit; 16 percent of Simons' body was burned and the amount of smoke inhalation was unbearable.

Llanos saw light and hoped that he had reached the exit. He pushed open the door and a fireball brought down the ceiling tiles. A ceiling tile that was on fire fell from the ceiling and landed on top of Llanos’ back; 56 percent of Llano’s body was burnt.

The two men were transported to St. Barnabas Medical Center Burn Unit in Livingston, New Jersey, along with 57 other students and firefighters. Three student’s lives were lost. Along with Llanos and Simons, four students were severally burnt and holding on for their lives.

“What I realized is that sometimes we take life for granted until something tragic happens. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I have so much to be thankful for, and I want to share my good fortune with others…Thank God I’m alive to share it. If I can help just one person along the way, then my own long journey after the fire will have been worth every step,” assured Llanos.

Simons and Llanos do not claim to be fire experts. “We actually encourage for fire officials and safety experts to be available during our presentation in order to answer any questions…we do have a firsthand expertise in burn survival and overcoming adversity at a young age”, discussed Llanos. The importance of fire safety is strongly illustrated during all presentations Simons and Llanos give.

Simons and Llanos presented to Kean University on August 28, 2014. It was one of the most powerful and moving experiences for both students and staff alike. Their After the Fire story had an overwhelming sense of hope and bravery within it. After the Fire discusses Simons and Llano’s battle to recovery, telling the story of the doctors and the nurses who worked with the worst damage St. Barnabas Hospital Burn Unit has seen to date. “It is the story of mothers and fathers, or faith and family. And it is the story of the women who loved these men, who knew that real beauty is a thing not seen in mirrors,” proclaimed Robin Gaby Fisher, author of After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival.

Kean University has an active and updated emergency action plan, including building drills that run thoughout the semester.  Kean University actively updates the list of occupants with disabilities, allowing emergency responders to be aware of occupants with disabilities, and ensures that all faculty and staff are evacuated in case of an emergency.

For more information on fire safety at Kean University, please visit[]. (Detailed evacuation map and emergency action plans can also be found on the same website.) You may also contact the office of fire safety, director Lou Magliaro by phone at 908-737-4813 or by email at [].