On Jan. 19, 2000, in the wee hours, a fire swept through a dormitory at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. It started in a couch in the lounge, set by two students who ran out of the building without warning anyone.
Three students burned to death. Another 58 were injured, some quite badly.
Robin Gaby Fisher, a journalist at the Newark Star Ledger, documents the long recovery of two of them, roommates Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. Her book, "After the Fire: A True Story of Love and Survival," is an expanded version of her newspaper serial narrative that made her a Pulitzer finalist in 2001. (She was a finalist again in 2005.)
Simons and Llanos both came from hardscrabble backgrounds, among the first in their families to attend college. They ended up in the same hospital, just down the hall from each other in intensive care. Simons was badly burned on his face and hands, and Llanos was burned so severely over half of his body that nobody expected him to live.
Fisher was there, day after day for months, watching and recording their slow, painful recovery -- starting with the dreaded tank room, where their burns were cleaned every morning, a process so painful that even in a morphine coma, Llanos wept.
Fisher's reporting is meticulous. She has a great eye for detail, and she knows what questions to ask. The opening scene, where the two men are crawling blindly through blistering heat and smoke, trying to find their way out, is flat-out terrifying. She is unflinching in her description of their wounds, as well as of the emotions that swirled around them -- angst, confusion (Llanos' mother speaks no English), hope, despair.
And guilt. Oh, guilt. Simons blames himself bitterly for leading Llanos in the wrong direction in the smoke and haze.
Before the fire, Llanos had been handsome and popular. After the fire, he lies in a coma for months, swathed in gauze, unresponsive to the attentiveness of his perky girlfriend. When he finally awakes, it's too late; she has moved on. She tried to remain steadfast, but she is neither mature enough nor in love enough. "I'm only 18!" she says.
Fisher's book covers seven years -- the fire, the hospitalizations and therapy, the gradual steps back toward normal life, and, finally, the trial of the two men who set the blaze. Her pacing is uneven, with the first two-thirds of the book almost day-by-day and the last third suffering from a compressed, time-lapse feel: One minute Simons is starting back to school, and the next minute it's two years later and his girlfriend is pregnant.
But this is a quibble; the book is a riveting and intimate read. That these two men survived is almost a miracle. That Fisher was there to document it is our good fortune.
Laurie Hertzel is the books editor of the Star Tribune.