Emotional Film Recounts Seton Hall Fire Tragedy

By Senior Correspondent Desiree Taylor

There is life “after the fire.” That’s the message and name of a documentary that chronicles the long and difficult recovery process of two burn victims — Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. They were roommates at Seton Hall University when a fire erupted in their dormitory on Jan. 19, 2000. The documentary begins with news footage from that tragic night 12 years ago when three students died in the blaze and 58 were injured.

Moving and graphic photographs by Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Matt Rainey show each painful step Simons and Llanos endured. More than 50 percent of Llanos’ body was burned. He underwent more than a dozen surgeries. Sixteen percent of Simons’ body was burned. Their incredible story is told through accounts by families, law enforcement, medical staff at St. Barnabas Hospital and best-selling author and reporter Robin Gaby Fisher. The film is based on her book, entitled “After the Fire.”

At a screening for the film at Seton Hall University yesterday, filmmaker Guido Verweyen said the documentary tells the inspiring story of heroes and cowards. The cowards, according to Verweyen, are Sean Ryan and Joseph Lepore. The two former Seton Hall University students spent several years behind bars for setting the deadly blaze which they claimed was started as a prank.

There have been many lessons learned from that deadly fire. Sprinklers are now required in all college and university dormitories in New Jersey. Seton Hall University president Dr. A. Esteban Gabriel says fire drills and inspections are conducted on a regular basis at the university.

After the screening, Llanos and Simons joined a panel discussion about the film. Among the more than 100 people who attended the event was Joe Karol. His son Aaron died in the blaze. After seeing the film for a second time yesterday, he said, “It has such an impact . . . so emotional. I felt it all over again.”

The film has won awards at New Jersey film festivals and will be shown at other colleges and universities throughout the country.