After the Fire
This seven-part series about two young men severely burned in the dormitory fire at Seton Hall University chronicles the reality of recovery for the victims, their families, and those who care for them. Originally published in The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), in September, 2000.
Frail as an old man, his face scarred and his forehead bandaged, Alvaro Llanos Jr. held his head high as he walked on the campus of Seton Hall University on the first day of the fall semester earlier this month.
No one who knew what he had gone through since he was severely burned last winter in a devastating fire in the freshman dormitory expected to see him when classes resumed in September.
Yet there he was.
Eight months earlier, in the frigid predawn hours of Jan. 19, a fire had ripped through the third floor of Boland Hall, where Alvaro lived with his roommate, Shawn Simons. They were both 18 years old.
The fire, deliberately set in the third floor lounge, trapped some students in the dormitory and stalked others until three were dead and 58 injured. Four, including Alvaro and Shawn, were in critical condition.
Alvaro and Shawn had spent the months since the fire in and out of hospitals.
Shawn, who was less seriously burned and healed faster, had been at Alvaro’s side throughout his difficult convalescence. He was there the day Alvaro finally awoke from his long coma.
It was Shawn who held Alvaro’s hand when he looked at himself in the mirror for the first time, and it was Shawn who reassured him those times when it seemed as if he might break down.
When Alvaro was moved from Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange in mid-May, Shawn was his first visitor and his last —he was there when Alvaro went home in late July.
Now, although Alvaro was not well enough to take classes on campus, he wanted to be with Shawn when he returned to resume college life.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread. E-mails flew across the South Orange campus from student who knew them and students who only knew of them:
They’re back! Both of them!
When Shawn left his home in Newark that morning, Christine Simons felt like her son was going off to kindergarden for the first time. How would Shawn feel once he was back on campus? Would he be able to adjust? Would he feel afraid? Awkward? Isolated?
By now, Shawn didn’t look much differently than he had before the fire. A navy blue Yankees cap hid the scars on his forehead and his cherished black curls had grown back. His burned hands stayed in the pockets of his baggy Polo jeans most of the day.
Shawn took five classes. None of the professors fussed over him and there were no double takes from students as he went from class to class. It felt like he had never left.
Seton Hall appeared to have recovered, too. Over the summer, Boland Hall had been rebuilt and a new class of freshmen had already moved in.
Alvaro, however, still had a long way to go. As he walked around campus with his parents, students who were friendly with him before the fire now passed without recognizing him.
"I’ve counted four so far," Alvaro said as he headed to the university bookstore to buy a Seton Hall decal for his car — though he wasn’t well enough to drive. "They were friends, people I knew pretty well. They didn’t know who I was."
Alvaro called out to two or three of them.
"Hey, it’s me. How ya doin?"
"Al? Is that you? I wasn’t sure," said one girl who ran to hug him was not strong enough to go to class full time and he wasn’t sure he was still Angie’s boyfriend.
Angie, who was living on campus, seemed to be avoiding Alvaro lately. She hadn’t returned his telephone calls in days.
Alvaro had thought about Angie the night before. About how much he loved her. About why she
wouldn’t call him back. He didn’t want to be a pest, but he needed answers. He would try to catch her later at her dormitory after he visited Carlos Rodriguez, his professor.
Rodriguez taught Spanish for Hispanics, one of two courses Alvaro would take at home in Paterson. Rodriguez wanted him to meet his classmates.
By the time Alvaro got to Room 237 in Fahy Hall, 29 students had assembled. Trailed by his parents, Alvaro self-consciously took the first seat by the door.
The day’s lesson was on the board: Getting to know each other.
Rodriguez already knew Alvaro. He had come to Saint Barnabas Medical Center after the fire to see what he could do for the families of the injured students, and immediately he struck up a friendship with Daisy and Alvaro Llanos Sr.
They spoke the same language, and Rodriguez told them how, three years earlier, his mother had been scalded by boiling water while he was visiting her in Puerto Rico. At the time, Rodriguez thought her burns weren’t that serious, but when she died a few days later from a stroke, he blamed himself. Helping the burned students and their families was a kind of requital.
When Shawn and Alvaro were in the burn center, Rodriguez visited regularly. He was a companion to their parents, and sometimes translated for the Llanoses. Before long he was accepted as part of the family.
When Alvaro showed up in class Rodriguez felt as if he were introducing a surrogate son. He had come to love the boy. Now, as Rodriguez introduced Alvaro to the class, he began to cry and stepped out of the classroom to compose himself.
His eyes red and swollen, Rodriguez returned a minute later and wrote on the board: Amor. Compasion. Valor. Sacrificio. Lealtad.
Love. Compassion. Bravery. Sacrifice. Loyalty.
"To me, they represent all of these qualities," Rodriguez said, turning to Alvaro and his parents. "It’s very easy to love them. For me, it was love at first sight."
The anxiety in the classroom had been palpable before Rodriguez spoke. Alvaro had been too timid to face the other students, and they had been afraid to look at him.
Now the tension broke.
One of the students stood. "I have a great amount of respect for you for overcoming what you have," he told Alvaro.
"No words can express the respect I feel for you," another added.
Alvaro lifted his head, faced the students and grinned widely.
"It feels very good to be here with you," he said.
When Rodriguez dismissed the class, the students filed past Alvaro as if he were an honored guest. Most offered smiles and words of encouragement. Some still avoided his gaze. When they did, Alvaro extended his hand.
"He’s awesome," one boy said as he walked away.
One student, Marina Cruz, stayed behind. She had been on the verge of tears all during class. Now she knelt beside Mrs. Llanos and sobbed.
Cruz, now a senior, was one of the nursing students who had gone to Boland Hall the morning of the fire. She had helped Alvaro as he lay moaning on the couch in the dormitory lobby. While Mrs. Llanos stroked her hair, Cruz, still sobbing, recalled how Alvaro’s skin had peeled off in sheets. His face was burned so badly she hadn’t realized that she knew him.
Hani Mansour, director of the Saint Barnabas Burn Center, was astonished that Alvaro had returned to Seton Hall with Shawn. The boy had such courage and such dignity.
Mansour, 53, was upbeat about Alvaro’s future. He would need physical and occupational therapy for months to come; there would be more surgeries, and he would never look the way he did before the fire. Even the slightest breeze would irritate his skin. He would be hypersensitive to heat and cold as the new nerve endings matured.
But Alvaro would be okay. He and Shawn could be a real inspiration for other burn patients.
Both boys attended the burn support group at Saint Barnabas, where they encouraged others rather than complain about their own injuries.
One of them was Kadeem McCullers, a 6-year-old boy from Long Branch who was burned while playing with matches near a drum of paint thinner. It blew up in his face.
At a support group meeting at the end of August, Kadeem’s mother Rozina worried aloud about whether people would stare at her child or ridicule him.
Shawn answered first. People did stare, he said. At the mall. In restaurants. Even in his own neighborhood. It was something Shawn had had to deal with, and her son would, too. Sometimes when Shawn caught people staring at him he’d ask whether they wanted to know what had happened. Most were just curious. It was natural. They weren’t judging him, he realized. When he did explain what had happened to him, everyone responded with words of encouragement.
Alvaro told the group that people gaped at him. He wasn’t able to hide his burns with gloves or a baseball cap the way Shawn could. Sure, it bothered him. Maybe they thought he was ugly.
"But I know I’m still me," Alvaro said. "I am still the same person I was before I got burned. And I am going to get better in time."
The tragedy had taught Alvaro an important lesson. "I think I’ve learned more because of it. I’ve seen so much that other people haven’t seen. I learned life is so precious and no matter how bad things seem — say you don’t have money or you don’t look the way you did once — you still have your life. That’s what’s important."
Eight-year-old Jabrill Walker, who had spent two months in the burn unit while Alvaro was there, often turned to Alvaro and Shawn for comfort. Jabrill had been burned as badly as Alvaro in a house fire.
Jabrill especially idolized Alvaro because they had spent so much time together in the burn unit. One evening in late summer he telephoned Alvaro at home. He was happy to be home with his mother and his brother, Jabrill said. But some of the kids in the neighborhood made fun of him because of the way he looked.
"Do people stare at you, Al?" Jabrill asked in his tiny voice.
"If they do, I don’t pay much attention."
"Well, sometimes when I go out with my mom, people stare at me," Jabrill said.
"I think they’re probably staring because you’re so cute," Alvaro told Jabrill. The little boy giggled.
People did stare at Alvaro. They stared in restaurants. In stores. At Shea Stadium, when he went to see the Mets play.
"The other day I was standing in line at the movies, and this girl about my sister Shirley’s age just stood there staring at me," he said a couple of days after he comforted Jabrill on the telephone.
"I decided she was staring at me because I’m so cute," Alvaro said with a chuckle.
Mansour knew there would be times when Alvaro hated his body, hated himself. But then Alvaro would realize he had survived something most people did not, and he would be grateful for being saved. Mansour wouldn’t be surprised if Alvaro changed his plan for a career in computers and instead became a burn therapist.
For Shawn, the fire would someday be a distant memory. Mansour was sure of it.
Shawn’s hands would always be scarred, although his face had healed better than Mansour and the other burn surgeons had imagined.
The fire hadn’t changed Shawn’s view of life. It hadn’t humbled Shawn the way it did so many other burn patients. Maybe that was good. The kid was feisty and tough. A real survivor. He would make something of himself someday.
As for himself, Mansour would not be the director of the Saint Barnabas Burn Center forever. He loved the place, there was no denying that. But he longed to return to Lebanon. His wife Claudette, who was from Connecticut, had agreed to live there someday. The couple had visited several times, and she liked the culture as well as the landscape. A burn center was needed in Beirut. Who better to start it?
Until then, Mansour would continue to promote what he considered to be one of the best burn centers anywhere.
It troubled him when other hospitals didn’t send their burn patients to him.
As New Jersey’s only certified burn center, Saint Barnabas was where all seriously burned patients belonged. They suffered so much anyway, but in places where there was no specialized burn team, they suffered unnecessarily.
Mansour still prayed for Dana Christmas, the only badly burned student who had not been brought to the burn center that first day. She spent months recovering at University Hospital in Newark and was now home in Paterson. Christmas, who was a resident adviser in Boland, had gotten several awards for her heroism the night of the fire.
Burn nurse Susan Manzo knew she was instrumental in helping the Llanoses and the Simonses through their long ordeal.
She also was fond of Tom Pugliese, the other badly burned Seton Hall student, whom she had cared for on that very first day.
Recently Manzo had received a card from Pugliese thanking her for taking such good care of him. She was happy he had recovered so well and was back at Seton Hall.
Nevertheless, Manzo had decided to leave the burn unit for a position in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit. It wasn’t an easy decision.
Manzo, 34, was the quintessential burn nurse. She was smart, unselfish and a little bit on the wild side. Mansour liked her compassion and her spunk. He wanted her to stay.
Manzo would never form the kind of bond with her cardiac patients that she had with her burn patients, Mansour told her.
When her own 9-year-old son, Anthony, went off to college in a few years, he would leave with a smoke detector packed in his bag. She could thank her Seton Hall patients for that. Manzo cared for them as much as if they were her sons or nephews.
But that was what made the job so difficult.
"I have no problems with having very sick patients," Manzo said. "But after a while it’s like, ‘Can I let this one go?’
"I’m tired of seeing babies die. It gets to you after a while."
Manzo needed a new challenge. She knew burn nursing inside and out, and she knew she was really good at it.
"Is this the smartest move?" she asked herself. "I don’t know. But I’ll be right down the hall. I’ll always be there for them in some capacity. That’s the best part of being a burn nurse. You’re always a burn nurse. If a big fire happens, they will call. My phone will still ring. And I will still go."
As she reflected on what she had learned in the burn unit, Manzo thought about the one lesson she would always carry with her.
"It taught me you don’t take any day for granted, because God knows what can happen."
While Manzo began to withdraw from the burn unit, Daisy and Alvaro Llanos Sr. were learning to let go of Alvaro.
He still needed their help, but every day their son was becoming stronger and more independent. Mr. Llanos rejoiced as he watched Alvaro and his cousins again play cards and dominoes.
For Mrs. Llanos, the baths and daily dressing changes that had been torture were now routine.
She was finally sleeping, and she was relaxed enough to eat a full meal. So many people seemed to care about her boy. Strangers sent their prayers; some even sent gifts and checks.
In early September Mrs. Llanos called her best friend, Millie Deleon, and the two of them went to a beauty salon for a haircut and a manicure. It was the first time Mrs. Llanos had allowed herself that luxury in the eight months since the fire.
Mrs. Llanos found herself smiling again. When Alvaro went to his cousin Marco’s house to watch the Roy Jones Jr. prizefight and didn’t get home until two-thirty in the morning, Mrs. Llanos was giddy with happiness.
Ken Simons, never a part of his son’s daily life before the fire, now saw Shawn more frequently.
For Christine Simons, life had pretty much returned to normal. She was back at work at her overnight job with Federal Express. Shawn could do most things on his own, though he still went to Saint Barnabas for therapy two days a week.
Not a day passed when Mrs. Simons didn’t think about the parents of the three students who lost their lives. She prayed for them every day.
She thought about how when Shawn was 13 or 14 she had lost touch with him for a while. He had been going through typical teenage stuff. She and Shawn had always been so close and suddenly he wanted only to be with his friends. She often felt lonely after that.
But the day before the fire Shawn had surprised her with a phone call from his room in Boland Hall. "What are you doing, Mom?" he had asked.
The two went shopping and then spent all day together. It was just like it used to be.
It was her hope that the parents of the students who died had a similar memory of their sons.
Through the months, Mrs. Simons had stayed close to the Llanoses, and it was she who encouraged them to loosen the reins on Alvaro.
"If our children sense our fear, it won’t help them," she said to Mr. Llanos one day.
"But I thought he was safe and secure (at Seton Hall)," Mr. Llanos replied.
"We all felt that way," Mrs. Simons said. "But this could have happened anywhere. None of us wants to let our children go, but you can’t protect him from everything."
Shawn had also done some letting go. He let go of his memories of the fire, and he let go of his anger at Seton Hall. Life was good again. He was back in college. His romance with Tiha Holmes was going strong: She was even getting jealous again. When Shawn went to a party without her one Saturday in early September, Tiha wanted to hear every detail.
"Did anybody try to kick it to you?" Tiha asked, using the neighborhood phrase for "pick you up."
"Why would they do that?" he replied.
"Because you look so good."
Alvaro wanted his relationship with Angie to survive the fire, too. Only after he went home from the hospital did he realize it probably would not.
Letting go of Angie would be one of the hardest things he’d ever have to do.
In late August, Alvaro told Angie he didn’t love her anymore. That wasn’t true, of course. He said it to spare her — and to spare himself — because he suspected she had already moved on.
Alvaro tried to see Angie over Labor Day weekend, but she was busy. She had to work. She had a wedding. She had to visit her father, her aunt, a friend.
He finally caught up with her that first day back at Seton Hall.
Angie was agitated when she saw Alvaro in the lobby of her dormitory. She had not known he was on campus until an hour earlier when he telephoned to say he was there.
"Hi, sweetie," Angie said stiffly, giving Alvaro an air kiss on the cheek. "I tried to call you yesterday. Really, I did."
The former lovebirds were ill at ease. They seemed to be dancing: Alvaro took one step forward. Angie took one step back.
Twenty feet away, Mrs. Llanos, standing next to her husband, felt as though her heart might break. She pretended to look anywhere except at her son and his girl.
Fifteen minutes later they were apart. Alvaro had to go home. Angie had to get away.
Taking refuge in the campus cafe, Angie slumped into an overstuffed couch. She wished it would swallow her. Everything was so different now, Angie tried to explain.
"Sometimes it’s not even him. It doesn’t even look like him anymore. It’s just hard to see him like that. I’m not embarrassed, but every time I see him I feel so bad. I’m afraid to talk to him about the relationship. Sometimes I feel like my life just stopped. I can’t meet people. I guess I just want to move on. But I feel so guilty."
Other students had been scrutinizing Angie. "Even when I go out with friends, people say, ‘How’s Al?’ They throw it in my face.
"In the beginning I was trying
to be there for him. When he woke up from his coma, he wasn’t communicating with me. Then he realized I was trying my best, but that wasn’t good enough. Then for him to say, ‘I don’t love you anymore’ — that hurt.
"I’m only 19," Angie continued, wringing her hands and staring into her lap. "I should be able to date other people. I don’t want people putting this on me that I can’t live because of Al. There’s no right or wrong in this. I know a lot of people will disagree with that. They’ll say I’m bad. I’m the type of person who, like, I hate it when people don’t like me. But you can’t judge someone unless you are in their position."
Angie wanted to leave Seton Hall and go to college in another state. "I feel trapped. The fire is going to haunt me forever. I have to deal with all of his friends watching me. If I was to go out with someone at Seton Hall no one would accept it. I want to be there for him, but I just can’t be there for him as a girlfriend. I want to be able to have the option to move on and I don’t feel like I have that option, and sometimes I resent that."
Nearby, another student strained to hear Angie.
"I used to bug him all the time, ‘When are we going to get engaged? C’mon, when, Al?’ I really thought I would marry him. If this accident didn’t happen we would have gotten married and had kids and that would have been my life. But right now, he’s not the one."
Angie started to cry.
"I sang to him when he was asleep for all those months, but he will never know about it. No one will know exactly what I went through. I guess my love left awhile back when people were trying to keep me there. I’ve been trying to live on memories. I tried to stay so focused, to love him, to be there, but it’s just not the same anymore.
"This is like a love story that doesn’t have a happy ending."
Two days later Angie drove to Alvaro’s house to tell him how she felt.
"We talked the way we used to talk and I know she still loves me," Alvaro said afterward, relieved that at least the conversation had finally taken place.
"We decided to be real close friends for now. I have to become a man and she has to become a woman. Then we’ll see what happens.
"I explained to her how I felt — that I love her and I will always be there for her. I’m not ready to be a boyfriend. I will do anything for her, but I can’t hold her or take her away somewhere."
It would still be a long time before Alvaro could put the fire behind him. His back and his head were still raw in spots and frequently bled. His scars sometimes split open as he was stretched in therapy. Pain had become a part of his everyday existence and he still required large daily doses of painkillers.
Mansour scheduled surgery for October to sever the cords of scarring under Alvaro’s arms and chin, which restricted his movement. He would be back in the burn unit for at least a week after that, and probably two. Cosmetic and laser surgeries were on the horizon, but that would be months, maybe years, away.
Alvaro felt good about the way the talk with Angie turned out. "Before she left, I told her that if she was dating someone else when I got better that I would be there to take her back."
The passionate girl with the thick copper hair would be a hard act to follow. Angie was Alvaro’s first love. She was smart and gregarious, always challenging him. Angie wrote her own poetry. She sang and danced and she was a whiz on the computer.
"And she’s beautiful," Alvaro said, looking away.
"To me, she’s beautiful."
At least he still had Shawn.
What began as an association based on a room assignment had grown into a deep friendship.
Two teenage boys, both from underprivileged neighborhoods, felt rich in each other’s presence.
In August, when Shawn threw a 19th birthday picnic for himself, he invited two people to help him blow out the candles on his cake: his mother and Alvaro.
When Angie broke up with Alvaro, Shawn was there at the Llanos home, waiting in the wings to catch him if he fell.
Sometimes still they talked about the fire. Shawn and Alvaro heard the rumors and read the newspaper stories saying investigators believed the dormitory fire had been set. They wondered why no arrests had been made. Yet they felt little bitterness.
"I don’t know who set the fire so there’s nobody to be angry at," Shawn said one day.
"I don’t know how I’ll react if there is a name. You can’t go around hating someone you don’t know. But whoever did this, I don’t think they were trying to hurt anybody. It’s like getting hit with a stray bullet. They weren’t aiming for me."
Alvaro used to think a lot about the fire and wonder how it happened, but he didn’t much anymore.
"I used to get mad because these kids did something so stupid," he said.
"I think they probably lit a fire and it got out of control. Something little got real big.
"I still get mad when I think about the three boys who died. It makes me feel sad to think of how much their families are hurting. But the kids who died are in heaven now, so at least they’re safe."
The former roommates talked often about moving back on campus one day. They decided they probably would, but only when they could live together.
From that first day at Seton Hall, when Alvaro picked Shawn out of all the other freshmen milling around campus and told his parents, "That’s my roommate, I just have this feeling," he knew theirs would not be an ordinary relationship.
"There’s something different about me and Shawn," he would say. "I don’t know what it is. We don’t even have to talk. I sense his strength and it makes me strong, too.
"The day he came dancing into my hospital room, wearing regular clothes, and I was in my bed, it made me a little jealous. But it made me stronger. Right then, I decided that I wanted to get better, too."
After the Boland Hall fire, Shawn and Alvaro found something precious and unexpected — a diamond in the ashes. They discovered a kind of friendship that was hard to explain. But they understood.
"I have a bond with Alvaro that I can’t have with anyone else, ever," Shawn said. "We survived a terrible ordeal together, and even though we still talk to each other the way we did before — you know, we still joke and make fun of each other — there’s something more.
"I love Alvaro. Definitely. I love him. Al’s going to be all right. I have no doubt in my mind.
"And I’ll be right there with him."