INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — On Tuesday, over 100 local fire chiefs, investigators, and personnel gathered in Independence to listen to the stories of two men who survived a deadly fire as college freshmen. The North Eastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association brought in Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos to speak to the group and share what happened to them, and the importance of fire safety.
On January 19, 2000, freshmen roommates Llanos and Simons woke up to a fire alarm going off in their dorm at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. They didn’t know at that time that just down the hall, a fire was burning.
It was 4:30 in the morning, and there had already been many false alarms pulled in their building. Llanos recalled the January cold outside and remembered they weren't exactly in a hurry to get out the door. But when they opened the door to the hallway, they were greeted with a scary situation.
“We didn’t expect that darkness that was waiting for us behind those doors,” Llanos said.
“We opened up the door, we saw this cloud of smoke and kind of shut it real quick and said, ‘hey, this is the real deal,’” said Simons.
Without a fire safety or preparedness plan, the roommates tried to exit the building the same way they always did, towards the lounge and the stairs near the elevators. In doing so, they missed the exit closer to their room.
“We decided to crawl out of the building not knowing we were actually crawling right into the pit of the fire,” said Simons.
They survived the fire, but three students did not. Llanos sustained burns over 60 percent of his body, he was in a coma for three months and had over 30 surgeries. He was in and out of the hospital for five years. Simons was also badly burned. He was put into a coma for two weeks, then stayed in the hospital for over a month. He was back in the hospital almost every day for therapy.
“We didn’t have an exit strategy that night. If we would have made a left two doors down and went out to safety - but we never practiced it so we didn’t have the tools,” Llanos said. “We weren’t taught this. If we would have had that information, somebody would have came and taught us this, we would have been in a better predicament for saving our lives.”
Now, Llanos and Simons travel the country, speaking to students, fire departments, and other groups to relay the importance of fire safety and preparedness.
“Talk about knowing where your nearest exit is. Just pay attention to those things,” Simons said. “Those are the little things in life that could be the difference between life and death.”
Those messages of preparedness, especially over the holidays, are ones local firefighters hope their communities hear.
Michael Kocab is a captain at the Willoughby Fire Department and the vice president of the North Eastern Ohio Fire Prevention Association. He said the association hopes to educate firefighters so they can educate their communities.
“Their goal is to save a life, save something from happening,” said Kocab of Simons and Llanos. “That’s our goal too, we share the same goal. We want to teach people about fire safety, and if it saves a life or it saves an injury, we may never know about it, but that’s our job is to try to put that out there and prevent those things from happening to anybody else in the future.”
Kocab said with the holidays coming up and students coming home for winter break, now is a good time for families to talk about fire safety and preparedness.
“If you’re a parent, just ask the question,” Kocab said. “'You’re staying in your dorm, do you have fire drills? Do you know how to get out? Did you practice any of that? Don’t be complacent.' Ask them the question.”
With holiday travel and new surroundings, he also said it’s important to be aware of your surroundings.
“There’s a lot of people traveling, a lot of people are unfamiliar with maybe where they’re going,” he said. “You’re going to a restaurant, you’re going to a hotel, you’re going to an unfamiliar building, you need to be able to recognize how to get out of that building.”
MORE FROM 3NEWS' ISABEL LAWRENCE: