Bearing scars he received in a tragic dormitory fire 20 years ago, Shawn Simons approached the podium at Seton Hall University Friday and read three names the school vowed to never forget.
Aaron Karol. Frank Caltabilota. John Giunta.
“Replace those names with your sons, daughters, your brothers, your sisters, your grandchildren," Simons said, looking at the crowd gathered on the South Orange campus. "It could have been any of us.”
Victims of the Seton Hall dormitory fire gathered with lawmakers and fire safety advocates Friday to mark this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the blaze -- and to call for a new law that could help prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The law -- called the Campus Fire Safety Education Act -- would create a new federal grant program to help colleges fund fire safety awareness and fire training programs for students living on- and off-campus. Schools could use the money to partner with fraternities, sororities, non-profit groups or local fire departments.
It would remind the country to continue to learn from what happened in Boland Hall on Jan. 19, 2000, Simons said.
“What happened to us here on this campus 20 years ago is not only a day of remembrance but a day of reflection,” Simons said. “We remember those who lost their lives, but we reflect on where we’ve come.”
The Seton Hall fire -- which killed three freshmen and injured 58 others -- led to a national conversation on the safety of student housing on college campuses.
Within months, New Jersey passed the strongest law in the nation requiring sprinklers in college dorms. And a few other states passed similar laws strengthening campus fire safety rules.
But it hasn’t been enough, some lawmakers say. Since the Seton Hall fire, at least another 170 people have died in fires on college campuses or in off-campus housing, fraternities and sororities.
“I will never forget the tragic fire at Seton Hall. I will always remember how our community came together after the fire to honor the lives lost and demand change,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-9th Dist. “I vowed on that day to do everything possible to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again."
Pascrell and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., reintroduced the Campus Fire Safety Education Act in Congress and said the legislation has the support of several fire safety and higher education groups.
The pair introduced similar legislation in 2017, but it stalled in Congress.
Several survivors of the fire attended the event at Seton Hall in support of the legislation. They included Simons and Alvaro Llanos, roommates who were severely burned in the fire. Their recovery was chronicled in The Star-Ledger’s “After the Fire” series.
Llanos and Simons now work as speakers, telling their stories at events around the country and encouraging people to pay attention to fire safety in their every day lives.
Llanos said he “has to wear these scars for the rest of my life,” but that he believes God gave him a second chance to help others.
“Fire education is near to my heart,” Llanos said. “I don’t want anyone to experience what we went through the night of the fire. We will never know how many students we will affect, but if we reach one, we have done our jobs.”
“You never know when it may be able to save your life,” Simons said.
Those attending the event included some of the first responders who rushed to the Catholic university campus as smoke rose from the freshman dorm.
Michael Commins said he was one of eight men on duty in the South Orange Fire Department when the call came in. He was 32 and just three years on the job.
He recalled students lined up on both sides of the street as his truck pulled up to Boland Hall.
“They were crying, telling us to hurry up,” said Commins, now the deputy chief of the South Orange Fire Department. “That’s something I’ve never seen before.”
The fire was quickly extinguished, but firefighters heard a “collective moaning” coming from the students injured and scared students outside.
“That’s something I’ll never forget ... But good things came out of that,” Commins continued, referring to the fire safety requirements spawned from the fire.
Two freshmen roommates — Sean Ryan and Joseph LePore — eventually admitted they set fire to a paper banner draped over a couch as a prank after a night of drinking. They each served less than three years in prison for the arson.
The fire quickly set off alarms, but many students ignored them because Boland Hall had been hit with 18 fire alarms the previous semester, almost all of them pranks.
The deaths and injuries at Seton Hall became national news and within six months New Jersey passed a new law that required the state’s 43 residential colleges and high schools to install fire sprinklers by 2004. The state provided $90 million in state loans to help pay for the work, though some colleges said it would be impossible to get sprinklers into all their dorms by the deadline.
Though some schools, including Princeton University, missed the initial deadline, all of New Jersey’s colleges eventually had sprinklers installed in their dorms.
A few other states, including Pennsylvania, passed similar sprinklers laws. But efforts to require sprinklers stalled in other states and on the national level, largely due to disagreements between schools, builders and state governments over who should pay for the costly work of installing sprinklers in aging buildings.
Critics say the campus dorm sprinkler laws only address part of the problem. The majority of student fire deaths occur in less regulated off campus housing, including student apartments, fraternities and sororities.
Some of the survivors of the Seton Hall fire said they continue to feel a responsibility to keep the story of the fire alive and to make sure its lessons continue to spread around the country.
Tom Pugliese, whose roommate was Caltabilota, one of the students who died in the fire, fought back tears as he spoke after the event about showing up because his late friend could not.
“I was close to Frank,” Pugliese said. “He was my roommate. I’m here representing Frank.”
Pugliese spent about a month in the hospital recovering from burns he received in the fire. Twenty years later, he has two children, ages 2 and 5, and a new baby on the way.
“We are representative of a tragic event,” he said of himself and the other survivors of the blaze. “I was on the brink of being number four of those three (dead students). So me being here is representing those who couldn’t."
He said it’s important that, like Simons and Llanos, the survivors of the Seton Hall fire serve as a reminder of the importance of fire safety.
“It’s pushing the story even further and driving the impact home to other colleges -- and understanding what could happen,” Pugliese said.