On the 29th of September, the junior and seniors of Harrison High School were gifted with a convocation that, quite unexpectedly, had a long-lasting effect on all who attended.
Though many high schoolers tend to dread the thought of convocations, seeing them only as an interruption of their day consisting of an hour or so of boredom, this specific occasion was one that made quite the impact of many of the students.
Displayed on projectors in Harrison’s auxiliary gym, students turned quiet as they were presented with a 45-minute documentary known as After the Fire, which tells the riveting story of Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos.
Simons and Llanos, both graduates of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, were victims of a horrific arson fire in Boland Hall, the dormitory hall in which the two students lived.
The incident, which has been called one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history, resulted in the deaths of three students, with injuries inflicted upon 58 others.
Victims Simons and Llanos, previous to this life-changing incident, were nothing more than roommates, lucky enough to have risen from childhoods of poverty to even get accepted into a college.
On the morning of January 19, 2000, however, everything changed. A prank gone awry lead to a fire starting in one of the hall’s lounge areas, spreading rapidly throughout the building, which had no sprinkler system at the time.
It wasn’t until 4:30 a.m. that the fire alarm was pulled. Unfortunately, Seton’s campus was known for its frequent false alarms.
Most students, including Llanos, disregarded the alarm as being yet another prank. However, urged by his roommate Simons, the two finally rose from their beds and attempted to make their way outside.
Because of their delayed reactions to the alarm, the pair suffered from life-threatening burns as they both attempted to exit the burning building, both eventually slipping into comas once being transferred to St. Barnabas Hospital.
With the two friends on the brink of death, this was one of the worst situations witnessed by the hospital’s burn unit. However, with the hard work of countless doctors and nurses, both victims were successfully brought back to health.
In its entirety, the documentary illustrates the struggles that Simons and Llanos endured, as well as how they coped with the aftermath.
Now, 15 years later, the the duo travels the United States spreading their story and urging the importance of fire safety.
Not only was a documentary filmed and directed to help spread information about what had happened, but a book written by Robin Gaby Fisher, After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival, was also successfully published, elaborating even more on the events that conspired regarding the fire.
An excerpt from the book emphasizes how truly horrid this experience was:
“[Simons] pressed blindly forward on his hands and knees, squeezing his eyes tighter, his chest about to explode from holding his breath too long. The heat was punishing. He felt as if he were crawling on red-hot coals, and his palms kept sticking to the melting floor tiles. Hell must feel like this, he thought.”
Still scarred, both physically and mentally, Simons and Llanos also discussed the court case and indictments of those found guilty for starting the fire.
“I don’t hold anything against the guys that started the fire,” said Simons. “Before, I never knew them or had any confrontation with them, but even after all that’s happen, I truly believe the incident was just a prank gone wrong.” said Simons
Tears of empathy were shed by many of those who attended the convo, both from students as well as teachers.
“Most of all, I just want you guys to be aware,” concluded Llanos. “Just know that if there’s a fire, you gotta take it seriously and get out of there. Don’t become complacent. We want ya’ll to stay safe.”