Most of you who know me know that I write about either a training concept or things that inspire me. This month I’m inspired. It comes right in time for Fire Prevention month. Sorry to scare off some of you with the FP words but keep reading anyway.
On January 19, 2000, an arson fire took the lives of three college freshman and injured 58 others at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. I was a Chief in New Jersey at the time and colleagues of mine had been to the fire. It was truly a dreadful scene. For the South Orange Fire Department, a crew of 8 or so pulled up to the dormitory at 4:30 AM and found over 100 kids at the windows. Where to start? At the end, other than calling for a lot of immediate mutual aid, they performed a herculean effort and rescued many and saved lots of loves that night.
On Wednesday night, September 24, 2014, the University of Connecticut (UCONN) Fire Department hosted two of the survivors, now 32 years old. Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos crawled the hot hallway to escape the fire. Shawn received 16 % burns and Alvaro, 56%. These two 18 year olds (at the time) found the drive and inner fortitude to hang on each other for many months in the burn center and are still close today. They opened their presentation with a 53 minute documentary based on the New York Times best seller “After the Fire.” It was written by Pulitzer Prize winner writer Robin Gaby Fisher of the Newark Star Ledger newspaper. I remember the 7 part series she did on these guys at that time in the Ledger and in fact still have the newspaper articles. The film documented their pain, struggle, strife, mental and physical challenges and all things that happen to innocent people when bad people do bad things. It also chronicles the fire investigation and how they caught the two kids who set the fire. They got 5 years in prison. You decide if justice was served.
Now for the inspirational part. I had the privilege of having dinner with Shawn and Al along with the UCONN Fire Chief, John Mancini prior to the night’s event. They are two of the nicest, kindest and contributing members of society I’ve met. They visit the burn centers and help burned kids get through the process. They travel to college campuses all over the country and spread the word of their horrific evening in the interest of prevention. In fact kudos to the UCONN FD for getting together with the “housing life” folks and “requiring” that all RA’s attend the lecture. They made an impact. The RA’s had lots of questions about fire safety, prevention, escape and survival. They wholly admitted to the audience that with more fire safety education, they may have avoided their agony. No one ever instructed them to look for two ways out or even stay in their room. They only knew to get out and stay out. They sell their book and DVD after their presentation and the line was down the hall. I waited almost an hour until I was able to buy my copies.
If you have a college campus in your jurisdiction, these guys are a must. If you don’t, go see them when they’re in the next town. In the mean time, get the book and the DVD. As a 40 year member of the fire service, I continually look for things that move and inspire me. This was one of those things.
By the way, get out there this month and spread the gospel. We’d talk Fire Prevention every month if they’d only listen. They tend to listen more in October so get to it!
“After the Fire” by Robin Gaby Fisher, Back Bay books
Take care, be well, be safe.
PS-The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend is October 10-12 in Emmitsburg, MD. The national service on Sunday is open to the public. Come and participate. If you can’t be there, it will be streamed live over the internet and satellite so watch it. If you’re a career department, set and extra place at the lunch or dinner table on Sunday for the firefighter who never made it home. Take a look at www.firehero.org and participate in Bells Across America. Thanks. REK