By Kevin Canessa Jr.
I was reminded by a press release over the weekend that Jan. 19 marked the 17th anniversary of a dormitory fire that killed three and injured 58 then–Seton Hall University students. One of the victims was a cousin of a former student of mine.
On Monday, Jan. 30, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Reps. Donald Payne and Bill Pascrell were to be on the campus of Seton Hall, South Orange, to announce a grant program that will bring greater awareness to college and university campuses about fire safety.
This also reminded me of my final year of undergraduate studies at my alma mater, Salve Regina University, in Newport, R.I.
On Feb. 25, 1997, an entire wing of one of the freshmen dorms – Miley Hall – was wiped out because of a fire. Following the fire, every student was required to tour what remained of the wing.
Telephones were melted into floors. Though it was a week after the fire, it was still very difficult to breathe in the hallway. Walls that were once painted white were now charred black. The floors were still wet and covered with disgusting black soot. Doorknobs were melted into doors in some cases.
To say the least, the tour was harrowing. And yet, 20 years later, I am grateful that we were required to make this journey.
Turns out, from what we were told by school officials, that the fire started in a room where a student had a candle lit directly underneath a wall tapestry. Both the candle and wall décor were on a list of items banned in dorm rooms.
The tapestry reportedly came off the wall when the door to the dorm room slammed shut (all doors, for fire safety purposes, automatically shut.) After the tapestry met the candle, it was completely torched in a matter of seconds. Yet because there wasn’t much by way of fire-safety preparation at that time, save for the occasional 2 a.m. fire drill, the person whose room caught fire did the unthinkable – she propped open the door on her way out to pull the fire alarm and to escape to safety.
Had the door closed on its own as it normally would have, the fire would have likely been contained to just that one room, we were told.
No matter what has happened in the world of college fire safety since 1997 and then 2000, I can’t help but think that this program that was to be announced Monday is anything but good. Fortunately, in 1997, not a soul was injured and not a life was lost at my alma mater. But three young men died at Seton Hall and dozens were injured just three years later.
That fire was started as a prank, the suspects later told investigators. Imagine that. Setting a fire was described as a prank.
The two Seton Hall students responsible for the fire spent two and three years behind bars respectively, despite having each been sentenced to five years. Even five years doesn’t seem to have been enough for what they did.
Perhaps even the best-trained college students would have had difficulty surviving a fire started as a prank. But the bottom line is thanks to this $15 million program, if one life is saved because of what it brings forth, it will be well worth it.
And we can only hope there will never be another life lost in a dorm the way the lives Aaron Karol, Frank Caltabilota Jr. and John Giunta were.
Yes, we can only hope.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the writer, Kevin Canessa Jr. Reach Canessa by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook and Twitter @kevincanessa.