Last night I attended a screening of the documentary After The Fire. It chronicles the events of the intentionally-set dormitory fire which killed three young boys, injured dozens and left several severely burned at Seton Hall University in 2000. The film was inspired from the NY Times Bestseller of the same name, which was poignantly penned by my dear friend, Robin Gaby Fisher.
Robin was the journalist for The Star Ledger Newspaper who was assigned to cover this story. What began as a writing assignment, quickly became a labor of love (Robin actually moved in and lived in The Burn Unit for nine months) and evolved into lifelong friendships between Robin and the two young boys she wrote about, their families and the incredible medical team at St. Barnabas Medical Center, in Livingston, NJ.
I read the book, cover-to-cover, the very day it came out in 2008. The next day, I had the privilege of attending the launch party and meeting these incredible young men, their families and hospital staff who saved the boys’ lives. It was emotional. It was meaningful. It was inspiring and it was an honor.
I expected to shed a tear or two at the screening, because this story is so moving. What I did not expect was the overwhelming empathy which overtook me as I viewed this film.
Last night I was not just a fan of the book, or an admirer of the boys, or a friend of the author. Last night I watched that film as a mother of a college freshman, and my heart was literally aching. I was able to FEEL the heartache of the families. I was able to IMAGINE the horror of seeing my beautiful son unrecognizably disfigured. It was a hurt so deep and so intense that the tears wouldn’t stop.
And then it got worse.
When the film ended, Robin and “the boys” took questions from the audience. The boys, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos are now in their late twenties, happily married with children of their own and more beautiful than ever. What I did not know, is that because of this tragic fire, the dormitory where my son (and anyone else’s child throughout New Jersey and several other states) currently resides, is now equipped with sprinklers in case of fire. Sprinklers that can save lives and prevent tragedies. Sprinklers that can eliminate the unfathomable physical and emotional pain these heroes have endured.
So my expectations were a little off last night. I expected to enjoy the film. I expected to shed some tears. I did not expect to be touched so deeply and so personally with gratitude for the safety of my son, your daughter, their nephew, niece, grandchild or neighbor. College dorms are a safer place for our children to live, because of the far-reaching effects of this powerful story.
And here’s the best news~ many colleges are adding After The Fire to their Required Reading lists. Can you imagine the far-reaching impact on young people who read this book and think twice before pulling a prank (some call it a prank and some call it murder) like those boys who set the fire? Can you imagine the young lives that will be saved because fire drills will be taken seriously? Can you please get me another tissue?