On May 12, the Class of 2003, among them many survivors of the Boland Hall fire, gathered at the Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands. It was graduation day. Among those whose names were engraved on the diplomas handed out that day were Aaron Karol, John Giunta and Frank Caltibilota, the three young men who had died more than three years earlier. Perhaps the gesture was supposed to bring some measure of closure to kids who had lived through the fire, and to the families of the kids who hadn't.

Monsignor Robert Sheeran
Monsignor Robert Sheeran
But it didn't. It's not easy to escape ghosts. As university president Monsignor Robert Sheeran put it in his address to the graduates, "We will always be with them and they will be with us each step of the way."

chapter continues

Dana Christmas, graduation
Dana Christmas, graduation
Three weeks later, on June 12, there was another graduation of sorts when prosecutors unsealed a 60-count indictment charging Sean Ryan and Joseph LaPore with arson, reckless manslaughter and felony murder. The two young men were no longer simply targets of a probe. They had become defendants. If convicted, they face up to life in prison.

The indictment also charged Cataldo, as well as Lapore's mother, father and sister with obstruction of justice. If convicted, the LaPores could face up to five years in prison.

In mid April, 2004 Essex County Superior Court Judge Harold Fullilove -- the same judge who is presiding over the Seton Hall fire case -- dismissed the murder charge against "Tic" Cataldo. The judge ruled, according to the Star Ledger of Newark, that prosecutors had failed to provide the defense with crucial investigative material needed to prepare their case.

Though authorities still can't say with any certainty who lit the fire that destroyed so many lives, the investigators who worked the case insist that, even though they may not have intended to kill or maim anyone in the building that night, the young men brought the indictment on themselves by stonewalling. They also insist that the end of the investigation and the coming trial at last brings the tragedy a step closer to that elusive sense of closure.

The trial is expected to begin in the summer of 2004.

But there are those who disagree. Tom Pugliese, the kid who was so severely burned that he spent two weeks in a drug-induced coma and woke up to find that his best friend was dead and he was scarred for life, is one of them. "I was almost hoping that they wouldn't find somebody... and that it was just completely accidental," Pugliese told Stuff. "But someone had to be... to blame.

"I don't know," Pugliese said, "I agree... that they deserve to be punished... but at the same time I know that there's no way, at least in my mind, there's no way that they did this intentionally."

And Dana Christmas, the young RA who risked her own life saving others, and who has, since the fire, endured one painful surgery after another to rebuild her seared body, has found her own route to closure. In the three and a half years since the blaze, she has worked tirelessly to lobby for a federal law mandating sprinkler systems in college dorms. It hasn't been adopted yet, but Christmas is optimistic that it soon will be. In the meantime, she says, her work and her recovery have left her little time, she says, to consider the delicate balance between justice and revenge.

Boland Hall with new sprinklers
Boland Hall with new sprinklers
She says of the kids who are charged with setting the blaze, "I never held a grudge against them, never had any malice in my heart. Up until now, it was never about them. I was upset with God, but it was never about them."

"One day, we all have to make an accounting to God," she said. "When I first heard that there are arrests I thought that will bring closure to many people. But I'm not made that way."

1. The Fire

2. The Heart of the Fire

3. A Swirling Sea of Smoke

4. The Morning After

5. Where Were You When the Fire Started?

6. The Probe Begins

7. The Cops are Rattled

8. The Meeting

9. Under Questioning

10. The Fat Lady Sings

11. The Godfather, Part I

12. Hardball

13. The Godfather, Part II

14. Closure

15. Photo Gallery

16. Bibliography

17. The Author

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Kids Who Kill, Part 1
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Columbine Massacre

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