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Three Die in Dormitory Fire at Seton Hall University

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A predawn blaze sent thick black smoke swirling through a dormitory at Seton Hall University on Wednesday while hundreds of students slept, killing three people and injuring 62 others on the South Orange, N.J., campus.

Screaming undergraduates fled into the freezing cold, although authorities said some students delayed leaving the dorm because a series of recent false alarms had lulled them into a sense of security.

The university had offered a reward for information about the false alarms, which sounded seven times during the week of final exams.

“We didn’t think anything of it at first,” said Vanessa Gomez, a freshman. “We saw people running outside and people were yelling: . . . ‘It’s real this time.’ ”

“Nobody wanted to get up because we had to get up the next morning for finals,” Nicole Nocera, another student, said.

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“There was just a lot of smoke. You couldn’t even see 10 inches in front of your face,” added Joe Lepore, who also fled the dorm.

Essex County prosecutor Donald C. Campolo said that 18 false alarms had been turned in since September. The dorm did not have a sprinkler system because the 48-year-old building was constructed before it was required, Campolo said, adding that fire hoses inside had been disconnected and might have been rotted. There were 55 fire extinguishers in the dorm building.

“It will be a painstaking investigation,” said the prosecutor, who would not speculate on the cause of the blaze.

Scores of anguished parents rushed to the Roman Catholic university campus 15 miles from New York City, not knowing the fates of their children.

“He was awakened and tried to get out of his room,” said Anthony Donato, whose son Nicholas jumped from a window, breaking his ankle and wrist.

“He said the smoke was so intense that he knew where the exit was, but he could not find it. He went back into his room, closed the door, opened the window and jumped out.”

“Everyone was running, and there were people screaming out the windows,” added Kathleen Brown after she fled the fire. “It was horrible.”

Firefighters discovered two of the dead in a lounge. Investigators sought to determine whether they had been smoking, which was forbidden inside the building. The third victim was found in a nearby room and rushed to a stairwell, where firefighters tried unsuccessfully to revive him.

The names of the three dead male students were not immediately released.

“This is a huge tragedy,” said New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who toured Seton Hall’s campus as three students remained in extremely critical condition at St. Barnabas Hospital.

Six nearby hospitals treated the injured, who mostly suffered smoke inhalation. Fifty-eight of those hurt were students. Two firefighters and two police officers also received medical attention.

While firefighters were working to extinguish the blaze, dozens of sooty students--some in pajamas, others huddled in blankets--milled about outside the white brick and glass dorm in the cold.

Some had tied sheets together, preparing to climb from the windows of Boland Hall. But firefighters managed to rescue them, using ladders. When the first engines arrived, some of the students were screaming that they were trapped.

Investigators said the fire started in the lounge on the third floor. Students said that in the past they had seen people violating rules by smoking there.

Asked whether careless smoking might have started the fire, Campolo declined comment.

University officials said they had begun a program designed to reduce the number of false alarms in Seton Hall’s dorms. Meetings were held in the residence halls, warning students of the dangers of turning in false alarms.

Some students said pranksters in Boland Hall, however, continued the practice.

“They were immature,” Gomez said, adding that “when people came out [Wednesday] with black stuff on their faces and yelling ‘Help me! Help me!’ that’s when reality set in.”

Times researcher Lynette Ferdinand contributed to this story.


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