Read After the Fire: A True Story of Love and Survival Online

Authors: Robin Gaby Fisher

Tags: #Social Science, #Personal Memoirs, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #Biography, #Burns and scalds - Patients - United States, #Technology & Engineering, #Emergency Medicine, #Medical, #Fire Science, #United States, #Patients, #Burns and scalds, #Criminology

After the Fire: A True Story of Love and Survival

BOOK: After the Fire: A True Story of Love and Survival
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Copyright © 2008 by Robin Gaby Fisher

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at

First eBook Edition: August 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-03279-7

For Alvaro and Shawn

Chapter 1

hawn Simons was a light sleeper, had been since he was
big. Sometimes all it took was the rustling sound of his roommate turning in bed to awaken him. Not surprisingly, the wailing fire alarm nearly shook him out of his skin.

Shawn shot up in his bed. “Not again,” he said, half-angry, half-bewildered, peering at the glowing green numbers on his bedside alarm clock. It was four thirty in the morning, and the middle of one of the coldest Januarys on record in northern New Jersey. He had gotten about forty-five minutes of sleep, and his toughest class was scheduled to begin in just four hours.

The dorm had been rowdier than usual after Seton Hall’s surprising win over its Big East basketball rival, Saint John’s, and students had celebrated into the early morning hours with parties all over campus. Shawn had dropped in to one or two of the spontaneous gatherings, then watched a movie with his roommate before finally turning in. Sitting up now, he saw that his dorm room window glittered with frost, and a family of icicles hung from the eaves outside. As usual, his room was cold. Shivering under his heavy woolen blanket, he lay back down and hoped for quiet to return, but the alarm continued to shriek.

In the four months that Shawn had lived in Boland Hall, the freshman dormitory at Seton Hall University, the fire alarm had been pulled at least once a week. It had happened so often during December finals that he finally went home to nearby Newark to study rather than risk the constant distraction. What irked him most was that it was usually another student playing a prank. What kind of person got his kicks by scaring everyone else? He didn’t understand it.

And this time was probably no different. Maybe he would just wait it out and pray he didn’t get caught by the dorm adviser. Shawn shut his eyes, trying to encourage sleep, but his mind immediately started to race. Seton Hall had a rule, right there in black and white in the student handbook: if you were caught skipping a fire drill, the fine was a hundred dollars, no ifs, ands, or buts. His mother had worked two jobs all her life so that he and his older sister, Nicole, could wear decent clothing and live in a comfortable apartment. It was because of her sacrifices that they had a better life than most of the other kids who lived on their ragged city block. How could he risk her having to pay money she didn’t have?

Willing himself out from under warm covers, Shawn climbed out of bed and stumbled over to his sleeping roommate, Alvaro Llanos. He had only met Alvaro four months earlier, when they were assigned to room together on the third floor of Boland Hall. Alvaro was shy and quiet, and they shared little in common except for their age and their love of baseball, and even then, they rooted for rival teams — Shawn for the Yankees, Alvaro for the Mets. Nevertheless, they had hit it off. Alvaro often told people that on freshman orientation day, with students swarming around everywhere, he had pointed to Shawn and told his parents, “I think he’s going to be my roommate.” Sure enough, when they walked into room 3028, there sat Shawn, gabbing on his cell phone. It was meant to be.

“Alvaro!” Shawn said, shaking his bigger, bulkier roommate by the shoulder.

He barely stirred. Alvaro slept through everything.

One hundred dollars,
Shawn thought, and tried again.

“Come on, Al,” he said impatiently. “There’s a fire drill. We have to get dressed. Get up!”

“¿Qué pasa?” Alvaro asked sleepily. Sometimes, when he was drowsy, he unintentionally reverted to Spanish, the language his Colombian-born parents spoke in their home.

“It’s a fire drill, Al. Let’s go. We have to go outside.”

Shaking off sleep, Alvaro finally dragged himself out of bed. In the dim glow of a single forty-watt light, the roommates pulled on their jeans and shirts from the night before. They slipped on their socks and sneakers, not bothering to tie the laces, then grabbed their winter jackets.

Shawn was one step ahead of Alvaro when he pulled open the door and stopped short. A fierce wave of blistering heat slammed him backward, and a blast of sour-tasting black smoke stuck in his throat, choking him.

“Oh my God,” Shawn whispered, his skin prickling with fear. “My God, Al! This is real.”

The hallway was pitch dark and Shawn couldn’t see anything. It was eerily quiet, except for the shrill bursts of the fire alarm. Dropping to his knees, he took a deep breath and crawled to the right, into the blackness, toward the elevator he always took down to the first floor of the six-story dormitory. He glanced back just in time to see Alvaro swallowed up by the smoke. In a building of six hundred students, Shawn suddenly felt alone, even though he figured Alvaro must be right on his heels. He pressed blindly forward on his hands and knees, squeezing his eyes tighter, his chest about to explode from holding his breath too long. The heat was punishing. He felt as if he were crawling on red-hot coals, and his palms kept sticking to the melting floor tiles.
Hell must feel like this,
he thought.

Then it got hotter.

Shawn ripped at his clothes, throwing his jacket ahead of him to crawl over. He pulled off his sweatshirt and stuffed it in his mouth. He crawled, faster, feeling his way along the hallway wall, trying to find the elevator, feeling for a way out. He wondered if Alvaro was still behind him. He opened one eye long enough to see that his glasses were caked solid with black soot. Shawn tried to wipe the soot away. He still hadn’t seen flames, just smoke, but now he smelled burning flesh. Could it be his?
Please, God,
he prayed.
It can’t end this way. Not here. Please, not now. I’m just a kid. And what will my mother do if I die?

Scrambling forward, Shawn fought the urge to gulp air. His lungs felt like they were on fire. Tiny stars darted in the spaces behind his closed eyes. Shawn could sense a dark curtain descending, unconsciousness creeping into his head. He willed himself on, on, on.
Was that an opening? Shawn crawled left, toward a gush of cold air. The smoke was thinner there and he could see he was now in someone else’s dorm room. No one else was there. A window was open and the screen was gone.
Did someone jump out?
he wondered. Rising to his feet, he leaned out the window. He realized he was at the back of the building. He looked down. It was a long way to the ground. He devoured a mouthful of the fresh, frigid air, and his lungs felt like rubber bands ready to snap.

“Please!” Shawn cried in the silent night. “Somebody help me! I don’t know how to get out!”

The sky was navy blue, and the dark campus was strangely still.
What’s the use?
he thought.
Nobody hears me. Nobody’s there.
Sinking to the floor, he began to pray again.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
For thou art with me.

Then out of the darkness came a quiet voice.

“Crawl left out of the door. An exit will be on your right.”

Obeying the faceless command, Shawn crawled back out into the heat and smoke. It was his only chance, and he had to take it. He felt around with his right hand and, as promised, found another open door. Pushing through it, he slid on his belly down one, then two flights of stairs. He landed at the bottom with a loud thud and felt almost giddy.
I’m alive,
he thought.
I’m alive
. He pushed himself up and stumbled outside into the bitter night. Falling on his knees on the hard, frost-covered ground, he looked at his hands. They were cold. And they were smoking.

On the front side of Boland Hall, Angie Gutierrez awakened to the sound of banging on her dorm room door. Alvaro, she thought, hearing the shrill sound of the fire alarm. Angie and Alvaro had been high school sweethearts. They had met in honors physics class at John F. Kennedy High School in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, at the beginning of their senior year and planned to be together forever. Alvaro was dark and handsome, with a quiet kind of charisma, and all of the girls wanted him. But he had eyes only for Angie, a bubbly girl with a ponytail, and they were the envy of the freshman dorm. They took the same classes, studied in each other’s room, and worked side by side in the campus computer lab. The frequent middle-of-the-night fire drills had become another chance to be together, and over the months, they had developed a routine: when a fire alarm sounded, Angie waited in her first-floor room for Alvaro to come down from the third floor, and then they went outside to wait out the drill together.

“Wake up!” Angie called to her roommate as she pulled on her robe and sneakers and rushed to the door to greet her boyfriend. Instead, she found two of Alvaro’s friends standing there wearing only boxer shorts, undershirts, and worried looks.

“Angie!” they cried. “Come quick! This is a real fire. We have to get out.”

“Where’s Alvaro?” Angie asked.

Faisal Ali and Altaf Plaique lived next door to Shawn and Alvaro in an adjoining room on the third floor. They said that in their panic to get away from the fire, they’d forgotten to look for their neighbors. There hadn’t been time to do anything but flee, and the smoke had been so thick that they ran right into a wall before they backtracked and found the stairway. “C’mon,” Faisal said, pulling Angie out of her room. “We’ll find them outside.”

Angie grabbed her cell phone from the table beside her bed and punched in Alvaro’s dorm room number. Busy. She called his cell phone. No answer. It had only been an hour since he had walked her down to her room after they’d watched the movie
with Shawn. She’d been frightened by the movie, and Alvaro, being Alvaro, had comforted her until she felt safe enough to go to sleep.

Where is he?
she wondered, running toward the first-floor stairway.

“Alvaro!” she cried, hoping to see him coming down the stairs. “Al! Where are you?”

The boys rushed after her and tried to pull her away, but Angie stood firm.

“Go on!” she ordered them. “Get out! I’m waiting here for Al.”

Angie had barely finished her sentence when out of the smoke came a grisly apparition. A boy ran and then tumbled down the stairs toward her. His clothes were burning off his body, and he was hitting himself, trying to beat out the flames. Other students ran after him, tossing coats and sweaters in a desperate attempt to smother the blaze. A screaming girl pulled a fire extinguisher off the wall and sprayed the boy, covering him with fine white powder. He looked like a monster in a horror movie.

As the burning boy stumbled forward, Angie could see he was disoriented and running aimlessly. She stood there, watching him approach her, too stunned to move. The boy moved closer and she felt her legs start to buckle.

He was charred black.

Terrified, Angie no longer resisted when Alvaro’s friends tugged at her arm. They pulled her down the hallway toward Boland Hall’s front entrance. Before she ran outside, Angie stopped and turned to look one last time. She saw the boy stagger to a couch in the lobby and slump into it. His clothes were in tatters, and he was moaning that he was cold. So cold.

Angie couldn’t breathe. Momentarily frozen in place, she stood there and sobbed. Then she joined the others and rushed outside into the frigid night, leaving the boy there. She had really wanted to help him, but she needed to find Alvaro.

“Where the hell is he?” she screamed.

Outside Boland Hall, help was beginning to arrive. Brian O’Hara was one of the first rescuers on the scene. Driving through the university’s black iron gates, the rookie paramedic found the campus in chaos. The sights and sounds were hellish. Smoke poured from open windows, and students leaned out, pleading for help. Pajama-clad kids milled around outside, many walking barefoot on the frozen ground. One girl wore teddy bear slippers. Tears had left deep tracks in the black soot that caked her face.

“What the hell is going on out there?” the dispatcher shouted over the radio. O’Hara had no answer.

The paramedic jumped out of the ambulance and walked among the wandering students. He tried to take it all in: A boy whose shorts had melted onto his skin. A girl slapping at her smoking hair. Students screaming for missing friends.

“I had God’s arms around me,” one dazed-looking boy said as he walked toward O’Hara. “That’s why I got out.”

“There’s a boy over there that’s burned real bad,” O’Hara heard someone say. A few feet away, a student in a police car was kicking at the back windows. An officer had found him wandering outside and locked him in the back of the squad car while he ran back into the burning building, looking for other students. The boy felt trapped and was trying to force his way out. Soon he was in the back of O’Hara’s rig.

“What’s your name?” O’Hara asked.

“Shawn,” he said, gasping for breath.

“How do you feel, Shawn?”

“Scared,” he said.

Shawn seemed alert and lucid, but it was obvious to O’Hara that he was gravely injured. His eyes were engorged, and his face bubbled with leathery blisters. His nose and his mouth were packed with soot, and every breath he took seemed to be a struggle. O’Hara clamped an oxygen mask over his face. As he did so, he glimpsed Shawn’s hands. O’Hara had never seen anything like them. The skin looked like burned tissue paper, ashily shedding off, and it was smoking. From his training, O’Hara knew Shawn’s hands were still burning beneath the charred outer layers of skin.

BOOK: After the Fire: A True Story of Love and Survival
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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