Original Photo Caption: Rob Hoffman / THE SETONIAN - The “remember” words on the Boland Hall Memorial Garden stone are faintly visible through the snow Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of the fatal fire that killed three students. A visitor had left flowers on the memorial.
Some of you may know, if you've been reading a while, that I used to work as an Admissions Counselor at Seton Hall University. I was an employee of the University when the tragic fire killed 3 students and injured others in January 2000. The two young men who were arrested in the case took a plea bargain that will guarantee that they will be in jail for 16 months, possibly as long as 5 years.
The time after the fire was a little weird, as you can imagine. I found out about it when I turned on the news as I was getting ready for work that day. Campus was open to us employees, but we had to show picture ID getting onto campus--our parking passes weren't good enough. They were trying to keep reporters off the campus.
Now I know these TV and newspaper people were just trying to do their jobs, but I was pretty disgusted. There were rumors of them climbing over the iron fence that surrounded the campus, posing as students to get "exclusive interviews," etc.
They were allowed on campus the next day, when we had a special Mass in the chapel for the students. The building that I worked in was right next to the chapel and had to walk past it to get to the parking deck. The chapel was so full that there were people there for Mass who had to stand outside on the steps. And there were TV people everywhere. They were like lice, just throughout the campus, feeding on the sadness and loss that everyone on campus was feeling. I remember making eye contact with some woman from Channel 7 in New York and giving her this disgusted look. Couldn't they let these poor kids mourn their classmates in peace, I thought, Can't they just go away and leave us alone?
Getting back "on the road" for spring recruiting that spring was bittersweet. There were many who offered condolences. Some parents steered their kids away from my table. Others marched their high schoolers right up to us saying, "After what happened there, this will be the safest school in the counrty for you to attend."
Then the Pirates Men's Basketball team went to the Sweet 16 that March. We went to that game in Syracuse and watched as the Pirates were outmatched by Oklahoma. But it's funny how this basketball team's success gave such a lift to the campus. Kids were still "dorming" in a local motel, but the fire in some ways, though it will never go completely away from the school, was pushed back a little further in everyone's minds and we could all think about moving on.
And that's what this plea bargain will allow for many. Knowing that these boys, who made the stupidest mistake of their lives and tried to hide from it, will face some jail time will allow some to move on.
I just can't help but think how differently things would have been for all of us who were involved with Seton Hall that year if they had simply come forward in the days after the fire. If they had the fortitude to come forward and admit their prank had gone horribly astray and asked forgiveness. Would they have even faced jail time if this was truly a horrible accident? How many of us would have felt sorry for these stupid kids? And how much sooner would the healing have begun for the surviving victims and the families of Aaron, John, and Frank if they had stepped up immediately?
I can't change those boys' actions, and their parents' apparent attempts to help them cover up their involvement, but I can impress upon my children that it is always better to tell the truth right away and to take responsibility for your mistakes. No one ever gets away with anything. If the law doesn't get you here, you still have to face Judgment. I'd rather have them face a judge here than The Just Judge up there.