Sound The Alarm

A Year After The Deadly Seton Hall Dorm Fire

It may be one of the best-kept secrets on college campuses: the number of times fire companies have to respond to alarms in student housing.

According to Dan Jones, fire chief in Chapel Hill, N.C., there are as many as 1,800 fires every year. And, he says, "that's the 1,800 we know about. I believe it's probably significantly more, but they go unreported."

Every call to the nearby University of North Carolina is treated as an emergency despite the fact that sometimes there is no fire at all.

Ask the 'Safe' Questions
Are you looking for the right college? Before you hit the road, print out this list of safety questions and carry them with you on your campus visits.
But even the false alarms do damage. Says Jones, "The scary part of it is, if there's a real fire, we don't know they're there. And they're hiding there... and then it's too late to get out. And that's what happened in Seton Hall."

Just over a year ago, on January 19, a fire alarm went off in a freshman dorm at 4:30 a.m. at Seton Hall University.

Ken Simons, an 18-year-old freshman at the time, was in his room on the third floor. "You know we were just thinking that it was another routine prank fire drill, " he says.

Still believing it was a false alarm, Simons opened the door of his dorm room. "It was a lot of smoke. It was, you know that thick black smoke. And it just came into the room and filled up the whole room," he recalls. "And you know, I closed the door back and I said to my roommate, 'this is the real thing.'"

The fire was raging in a student lounge just four doors away from Simons' room.

He managed to get out of the burning building, but not before he was critically injured. "On my hands, I had third degree burns. And on my face, multiple first, second and third degree burns," he says.

Simons and 57 other students were hospitalized, but they were the lucky ones. Three students, Aaron Karol, Frank Cattabilota, and John Giunta -all freshman at the university - died in the fire.

Safety Measures
According to a 2000 Federal Emergency Management Agency study, more than 90 percent of the reported fires in college dormitories, classroom buildings, fraternities and sororities occurred where smoke alarms were present. However, only 27 percent had sprinklers present..
Investigators now believe that the fire was deliberately set, although no one has been charged with a crime.

Investigators also believe the three students would not have died in the fire if their dorm had been equipped with a sprinkler system. "They are 99.9 percent effective, there has never been a recorded multiple loss of life in a sprinklered building in America," says Fire Chief Dan Jones.

Jones has been fighting to get sprinklers in student housing everywhere, but it is an uphill battle.

There are no national figures, but a 48 Hours survey of nearly all the colleges and universities in the state of North Carolina found that less than a third of the dorms are equipped with sprinklers.

Even after a tragedy it is difficult to get colleges and universities to act.

After spending two weeks in a coma and another seven months in rehabilitation, Ken Simons is back in school. He says despite the scars, he still has a lot to be thankful for: "As far as my face is concerned, everything is just coming back. You know, I look at my hands and everyday you know I look at it and say I'm really scarred. But it's not that bad. You know, I still have my hands. It could have been a lot worse.

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