Seton Hall

A Swirling Sea of Smoke

Boland Hall, recent exterior
Boland Hall, recent exterior

Somewhere ahead of him in the black swirl of smoke was Tom Pugliese's roommate, but Tom couldn't see him or hear him. He had no idea whether he had made it to safety or had died in the fire. Tom felt there was no one left in the world but him.

Although he didn't know it, he was not alone. Up and down the long narrow corridor, other students were also blindly groping along the floor. If any one of them had so much as stuck their arm straight out, chances are they would have brushed the back of a fleeing friend. But none of them dared to. And so they all crawled silently along the hallway, believing, like Tom, that they would die completely alone.

Tom grasped frantically at the back of his neck. The gold in the necklace he always wore -- glowing now from the 1,500-degree heat of the inferno -- was burning a brand into his neck, and tug as he might, there was nothing he could do about it.

He forced himself to ignore the pain and kept repeating to himself a mantra he had picked up somewhere, perhaps during Fire Prevention Week in elementary school, or maybe on TV. "Stay low," he told himself. Maybe he could escape the worst of the heat that way. Heat rises. Maybe he could stay alive a few moments longer that way, and maybe in those precious seconds, he'd find the way out.

Just then, a pain worse than any Tom had ever imagined flashed through his hands and wrists. Investigators would later theorize that the heat was so intense that the synthetic carpet in the hallway turned molten. All Tom knew was that when he managed to bring his hands close enough so he could see them through the smoke, great hunks of charred flesh hung from them.

He staggered to his feet, trying not to breathe, and took a few futile steps before he collapsed against a door. He was barely aware of someone pulling the door open, and hardly felt it as a second pair of hands helped grab him and dragged him inside. As he slipped in and out of consciousness Tom Pugliese didn't even know for certain whether he was dead or alive.

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