As the first credits rolled on the screen, the audience of students didn't eat snacks and their cell phones remained off - they watched the story of a terrible fire that took the lives of three college students - a fire that took place in their own dorm.
On January 19, 2000, lives were changed forever when a fire broke out in the third floor lounge of Boland Hall. Three lives were lost and 58 students and rescue personnel were injured in the blaze.
A documentary called “After the Fire,” directed by Emmy Award winner Guido Verweyen, was shown to students of Seton Hall, as well as members of the surrounding communities. Two burn victims, Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons, their doctor, Verweyen and Matt Rainey, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his photography of the fire, spoke to the students at a panel after the showing.
The documentary is based off the New York Times bestselling novel of the same name, written by Robin Gaby Fisher. Fisher was the Star Ledger reporter who covered the fire.
“I was actually assigned the story when I worked at the Star Ledger,” Fisher told Patch. “My editor asked if I would like to spend some time in a burn unit to see how the students from Seton Hall were dealing with their injuries.”
Two of the students that Fisher followed were Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons. The book, and subsequent film, followed their journey from being badly burned that fateful morning, to their recovery in the St. Barnabas burn ward, to their life as it stands today.
Fisher spent nine months tracking the men’s road to recovery, building a close bond with them. She says that “they are like family” to her. Llanos and Simons have even named Fisher as their daughters’ godmother. Fisher was so pleased to see her words about the men come to life in the documentary.
“Guido had read the book and he called me and said it was the most inspirational story,” said Fisher.
Verweyen asked if he could base a documentary off of the book and once Fisher got the ok from Llanos and Simons, off they went.
“I was so inspired by (the book),” said Verweyen. “The scope of the story has so many themes, like love, friendship, hope, forgiveness, healing, all these things I like as a filmmaker come together.”
Verweyen was aware of the news story, but not of the aftermath. While he knew about the three students that had perished, the recovery of the ones who had been badly burned was a new subject to him, one he wanted to explore.
“The inspirational story of (Llanos and Simons), who faced incredible adversary, in the beginning, they didn’t even know if they would make it,” said Verweyen. “It’s a miracle, like a medical miracle that they would even survive in the first place.”
Verweyen says that the documentary taught him about some of the “heroes of this story.” People such as the firefighters, medical workers and doctors were highlighted in the documentary. One of those people was E. Hani Mansour, M.D., medical director of the New Jersey Burn Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, who helped oversee the recovery of the men.
“I can’t forget this,” said Mansour, when asked about how much he thinks about this particular case. “(Llanos and Simons) stayed with us for close to a year and a half.”
Mansour said that the men being “young and motivated” helped them in their recovery, which he said went as expected. Mansour says the documentary is being shown to many of the employees of the hospital, as well as firefighters throughout the area. One of them include the current South Orange Fire Chief, Jeff Markey, who also delivers one of the film’s most powerful lines when he says that the department was “going to make sure that someone was going to be held accountable for (the fire).”
“Al and Shawn are an inspiration to me personally,” Markey said following the event. “They’re struggle has motivated me to dedicate what I do for a living, in memory not only to the students we lost, but to their tenacity of life. That keeps us going and the department as a whole, we spend a lot of time now talking to people to prevent fires.”
Another attendee to the event on Monday was South Orange Village President Alex Torpey. Torpey was a 12 year-old in South Orange when the fire happened, however, it is one that he remembers vividly.
“When (the fire) happened, it was in the forefront of everyone’s minds,” said Torpey. “Not only in South Orange, but even when I went to college, fire safety was one of the first things we talked about when I got there and I think (the Boland Hall fire) caused that discussion to happen everywhere in the country.”
Alvaro Llanos and Shawn Simons have both moved on from the fire and are married with children. They volunteer in burn wards and other parts of the hospital, where they look to inspire victims that life does get better. As for their story now being documented on film, Simons thinks it’s a way to make something positive out of this.
“This is a film about friendship, this is a film about love, this is about those who came to our rescue to help us,” Simons said during the panel. “It’s inspirational and it’s a story that should be told to everyone.”