Friday, October 24, 2014

"After the Fire"

I recently read After the Fire: A True Story of Friendship and Survival by Robin Gaby Fisher. At Seton Hall University there was a terrible fire in the early morning hours of January 19, 2000. Three students died in the fire and 58 others were injured, including two freshman roommates, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. They had only known each other for a few months but had become fast friends. When they awoke to the sound of the fire alarm on that freezing cold morning they wondered if it was just another prank since there had been lots of false alarms from students pulling the alarm, but they decided they better get up, get dressed and check things out. When Shawn opened the door he was overwhelmed with thick, black smoke. This was NOT a false alarm.

Shawn got down on his hands and knees and turned to the right out of his and Alvaro's dorm room and headed in the direction of the elevator. This was a mistake since turning left would've taken Shawn and Alvaro (Al) to the stairs, and ultimately to freedom, but Shawn, overcome by smoke and fear, was disoriented. He would be plagued with guilt for this decision for a long time since this mistake had lifelong consequences for himself and Alvaro. Shawn and Alvaro miraculously survived, but both were burned very badly. Shawn sustained burns on his hands and face and Alvaro was burned beyond recognition. In fact, Alvaro's girlfriend Angie was screaming his name at the outside entrance of the dormitory just hoping he would make it out alive. Yet, when she saw a man clumsily staggering down the stairs with oozing, bubbling skin that had been charred in the fire, the remnants of his clothing still flaming, she didn't even recognize that it was Alvaro, the young man she'd come to know so well.

Shawn and Alvaro were both rushed to Saint Barnabas Hospital, which was known for having the best burn unit around. Both young men spent quite a while in the burn unit, especially Alvaro, who spent the first 90 days post fire in a coma while his body healed. He underwent daily "tankings" where his burned skin was debrided and his dressings were changed in a room called "the tank." (Debridement is the removal of damaged tissue from a wound.) Imagine having that raw, tender skin rubbed to get the dead tissue off. It's an excruciating but necessary part of the healing process. Even though Alvaro was in a drug-induced coma and was giving a big dose of morphine before going to the tank, the pain still registered (something I found astonishing). Tears would escape from his eyelids, which had been stitched shut, and would rundown his face. The nurses would sing to Alvaro to try to sooth him or would cry right along with him. Others got sick to their stomach. Then they would get him bandaged up, only to do it all over again 24 hours later. This continued for weeks.

Shawn didn't have to stay in the burn unit nearly as long as Alvaro since he wasn't burned as severely (only on 16% of his body compared to Al's 58%). When Shawn was well enough to leave Saint Barnabas he hadn't been allowed to see Alvaro, despite repeatedly asking, so on the day Shawn left he said, "I have to see Alvaro." He was finally allowed to see Al, who was still comatose. When Alvaro regained consciousness and was lucid, Shawn was one of the first people to visit. Shawn and Alvaro already had a strong friendship before the fire, but the tragedy they went through made their bond even stronger. They were able to help each other get through things in a way no one else could since they had been through the same thing and were experiencing many of the same emotions and feelings.

Here are some pictures documenting Shawn's and Alvaro's recoveries after the fire. These Pulitzer Prize-winning photos were taken by Matt Rainey. Thank you, Matt, for your permission to use your amazing photos in my post. And thank you to The Star-Ledger, too. The first picture shows Shawn and his mother embracing, and the second picture shows Shawn's hands, which were burned severely as he crawled along the ground in the blazing fire.
This is Alvero. Al was on a ventilator to breathe for him while he was comatose. In the next picture Shawn is visiting Al, who was still bandaged from head to toe.
The next picture shows Alvaro and Angie, his girlfriend at the time. Poor Al – he had lost so much weight after being in a coma for so long. He was still very weak at this point and his scarred skin was still healing. In the next picture you can see how scarred Shawn's hands were after being burned – something he was very self-conscious of.
Shawn turned 19 and is pictured with his mother and Alvaro. In the next picture Shawn and Al are at a Mets game. They share a love of baseball, but cheer for different teams. Shawn for the Yankees and Al for the Mets.
The fire was nearly 15 years ago. Where are they now? They are still close friends. Both graduated from college. It took a little longer than the four years they expected it to take when they started college, but they both did it. Shawn and Al are both married with kids. Alvaro was afraid he would never find anyone to love him with his scarred appearance, but he found a wonderful young woman named Paula who was able to see past his scars. Shawn and Al have gone on the speaking circuit and have visited lots of colleges since After the Fire was published in 2008. I would love to hear them speak because I'm sure it would be very inspiring.

Shawn, Alvaro and their wives with the director of the documentary film that was made about the fire, and then Shawn and Al with Robin Gaby Fisher, author of After the Fire:
Shawn and Al at two of their speaking engagements. For as badly as they were burned they both look amazing, especially Alvaro:
You might be wondering what caused the fire. It was an act of arson. A banner in the student's lounge was intentionally lit on fire as a prank, which ignited a couch and rapidly spread. In less than five minutes the dormitory was in a blaze with temperatures reaching 1500°F. The two students who started the fire, Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore, lived across the hall from Shawn and Alvaro. After Sean and Joseph started the fire, they fled the building, even though they knew the dormitory was full of sleeping students. There was a big cover-up with two other students who knew of Sean and Joseph's culpability, and a pact was formed between the four of them to never tell anyone who started the fire.

The arson investigation went on for three years before Sean and Joseph were indicted. Police even bugged Sean Ryan's house and his parents and sister were aware that Sean started the fire, but they lied to the police when questioned about Sean's involvement. Sean and Joseph never showed any remorse, and did nothing to help evacuate the dorm. I can understand making a mistake, but their cocky smugness and cowardice was inexcusable. On November 15, 2006, Sean and Joseph admitted that they had set the fire that led to three deaths and injuries to dozens more and pleaded guilty to third-degree arson. In January 2007 they were sentenced to five years in a youth correctional facility. Both are now on parole. I really hope Sean and Joseph learned something valuable from their time in the correctional facility and will live better lives.

This was an excellent book that really hit home. I could relate to Shawn's and Alvaro's experiences in many ways since I've been through my own life-changing transformation after going through a very traumatic situation. I also have secondhand experience with burns and all that they entail since both of my younger sisters are burn survivors and have had lots of surgeries to repair and maintain their scarred skin. There were so many things about this book that I didn't go into, so if it sounds interesting to you I highly recommend getting the book and reading the entire thing.

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