On January 19, 2000, a fire raged through the freshman dormitory at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, killing three students and injuring 58 others. Among the victims were Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, roommates from poor neighborhoods who made their families proud by getting into college. They managed to escape the fire, but both were burned terribly.
After the Fire is the story of these young men and their fight to recover from the worst injuries the Saint Barnabas Hospital burn unit had ever seen. It is the story of the extraordinary doctors and nurses who work with the burned, of the mothers and fathers, of faith and family, of the women who came to love these men, and of the invisible ties that bind us to one another.
I love telling stories about people, but none more than that of Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos, the inner city kids and Seton Hall University roommates whose grit and determination helped them survive one of the worst dormitory fires in U.S. history.
Theirs is the story of my first book, “After the Fire.” The January 2000 arson in the freshman dormitory claimed the lives of three promising college students and 58 others were injured. Shawn and Alvaro almost lost their lives that day and both sustained life-altering injuries. They will always have scars to remind them of that terrible winter night.
But it is their lives “After the Fire” that make this story extraordinary. Their loyalty to each other, and their resolve to live their best lives, despite the tragedy, has touched many people. No one more than me.
I am proud to say that Shawn, Alvaro and I continue to have a close relationship all these years after I was first assigned to write their story for my newspaper, The Newark Star-Ledger. The story was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and won the Pulitzer for photography. It is the basis of the book.
But I think what makes me most proud is not something tangible. It is the love I share, a 56-year old woman from the suburbs, with two young men from the inner city. It is a love that was planted during the months I spent with Shawn and Alvaro in a hospital burn unit, their lives hanging in the balance. It is that love that inspired me to write the book. And it is a love that endures endures to this day.
There have been other stories for me since Shawn’s and Alvaro’s first appeared in the newspaper in September of 2000. One of those was also a Pulizer Prize finalist, in 2005. And I hope there will be more books in my future.
But there will never be another Shawn and Alvaro for me. If you’re lucky, people like that come around once in a lifetime. I’m glad they came into mine.