By Seamus McGraw   

The Fire

Tom Pugliese (left) and Frank Caltabilota, best friends
Tom Pugliese (left) and Frank Caltabilota, best friends

Tom Pugliese rubbed the sleep from his eyes after being awakened by the sound of the fire alarms, the same grating, hysterical noise that had echoed down the cinderblock hallways of Boland Hall at least a half-dozen times since September.

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"Not again," Tom thought.

In the five months since Tom and his roommate started their freshman year with the Class of 2003 at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., there had been one false alarm after another at Boland Hall, sometimes two a night. Shrill as they were, Tom and the other residents had long since learned to ignore the alarms, accepting them as a fact of life.

He was about to mutter something obscene, roll over, pull the covers over his head and go back to sleep. But the look in Frank's eyes convinced him otherwise. Tom had known Frank Caltabilota for a very long time, since seventh grade. They had gone to high school together in Long Branch and hung out in the same large clique, and in all that time, he had never seen Frank look so worried. There was something about that look that made Tom sit up and pay attention.

He followed Frank's glance over to the door to their tiny room. Smoke -- thick, black and noxious -- was beginning to seep in from beneath it.

"This is for real," Tom thought as he felt the first sharp jabs of panic in his gut.

No one had ever told them what to do in this situation. For all the false alarms at Boland Hall, there had never been a fire drill. There were no sprinklers in the dorm. And help seemed a long way off.

The two roommates stared at each other for a moment. In the shorthand that develops between lifelong friends, they quickly ran down their options. There was the window of their third-floor room. It was still a 40-foot drop. If they were lucky, they would land on the grass. If they weren't, there was the cold concrete sidewalk and the rough macadam of the parking lot beyond it. Others might try it. But for Tom and Frank, it wasn't an option.

It seems almost silly now, but they grabbed a few things, personal items that they didn't want to leave behind. The acrid smoke that had first appeared as a few wisps was roiling up from under the door. The door was hot, but it was nothing compared to the blast that sent Tom and Frank reeling backward when they opened it.

Frank dropped low to the floor, and edged toward the open door. Beyond it, there was nothing but a swirling blackness, a deadly sea of smoke and toxic fumes that had been released by the heat of the blaze.

Frank went first. He turned left out the door and had only crawled a few inches before he disappeared into the maelstrom.

"That was the last time I saw him,' Tom would later say.

Authorities would later surmise that after five months of getting up every morning, brushing his teeth, grabbing his books and heading left out his door to get to the third-floor lounge and the elevators on his way to class, Frank Caltabilota was hard-wired. To him, that was the way out of the building.

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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