Seton Hall

The Heart of the Fire

Frank Caltabilota, victim
Frank Caltabilota, victim

In fact, it was the fastest route to the deadly heart of one of the worst dormitory fires in recent American history, a blaze that claimed three lives and shattered scores of others. Investigators believe Frank Caltabilota was dead before he even hit the floor. If he had only turned right, said one investigator, Frank Caltibilota could have been home free.

Less than 100 feet away, down another of the three hallways that converged on the burning lounge to form a T, Dana Christmas was making a choice of her own. The 21-year-old resident assistant could have fled the burning building. No one would have thought any the less of her. But she didn't. The freshmen, her "babies," she called them, needed her. "I just couldn't leave them like that," she would later say.

And so, as the flames and smoke rushed around her, Dana Christmas, ran from room to room, pounding on doors, trying to wake her sleeping charges.

Suddenly she felt a searing pain on the back of her head. Her scalp had burst into flames, and instinctively, she tried to smother the fire with her hands. Her hands too, caught fire before she could put out the flames.

Even then, Dana Christmas remained in the hallway, trying to rescue everyone she could until the flames and smoke and pain of her own terrible injuries overcame her. To this day she still doesn't know how she escaped from the fire. All she knows for certain is that eventually she collapsed. In the haze of pain and memory, she has a vague recollection of being carried down the stairs to safety.

At the far end of Dana Christmas' dorm, Nick Donato was lost in the smoke. He had made it only a few feet from the door of his room before he lost his sense of direction. Though the stairwell was only 20 feet from his door, he could not find it. He had no idea how long he wandered in a small circle, but before long he was again leaning against the white-hot doorjamb of his dorm room. A searing panic seized him. "I thought I was going to die," he later said.

He ran inside his room and slammed the door. "The window," he thought. He had always been afraid of heights, and the long drop from his window to the ground might as well have been a thousand feet. But he had little choice. He'd never be able to find his way to safety if he ventured back into the hallway. Nick decided to take his chances. He kicked at the double-pane window glass until it shattered. Then he forced his way through the jagged shards in the window jamb.

"I pretty much lowered myself out of the building, and I clutched onto the windowsill. I was facing the building. I could see into my room," he later recalled. He hung there for a moment, and then, mustering all the courage he could find, he kicked off the building and sailed through space for what seemed to be an eternity before he crashed to the ground.

He struggled to sit up, so numb from terror and shock that he didn't realize he had shattered his left foot and wrist and broken a bone in his back in the fall. The pain would come later, as it would for Dana, Tom and all the others. All Nick knew at that moment, as he watched the menacing billow of black smoke rush from his window high above him, was that he was alive. He had made it.

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