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Local women escape dorm fire in N.J.

January 19, 2000|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI and MARLO BARNHARTs

One of two Washington County women who was in a Seton Hall University dormitory where fire erupted early Wednesday said she saw students struggling to escape the building.

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"Smoke was pouring out the windows and they were pushing against the windows trying to get out. Some people smashed the glass and were hanging out the windows," said Kari Belin, 18, of Hagerstown.

Belin and her roommate made it outside and she and others shouted up to students still in the dorm's upper floors, telling them to tie bed sheets together and use them to escape the five-story building.

When the fire alarm sounded Belin, a South High graduate, thought it was a prank.

"I thought it was another false alarm. We got dressed real slow. We put on sweats and socks and tied our shoes. We didn't rush," she said.

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But it was no prank. The very real fire in her dormitory at the Roman Catholic university in South Orange, N.J., claimed the lives of three students and injured at least 62.

Belin said when she left the second-floor dorm room, one floor below where authorities said the fire started, she could hear fire crackling and see flames coming from a stairwell. "We couldn't see down the hallway," because of the smoke, she said.

Like Belin, Vanessa Gomez of Hagerstown didn't think the fire alarm Wednesday morning was the real thing.

"I am assuming everyone thought it was a prank," Gomez, 18, said. "I don't think anyone thought anything of it."

There have been 18 false fire alarms at Seton Hall University since September, college officials said. Four of those false alarms were pulled in one night, Gomez said.

A 1999 graduate of Williamsport High School, Gomez was sleeping and her roommate was about to turn in when the fire alarm began to ring at 4:30 a.m., Gomez said in a phone interview Wednesday night from her grandmother's home in Hackensack, N.J.

They figured it was a prank but decided to leave the dorm just in case.

As they walked down the stairs, they smelled smoke and heard people screaming, she said.

In the cases of the false alarms, students waited near the front door until they were permitted back inside, but this time students were passing out, Gomez said.

"It was just incredible. It was unbelievable," she said.

"When people came out with black stuff on their faces and yelling, 'Help me! Help me! - that's when reality set in," she said in an earlier interview with the Associated Press.

She was also interviewed by reporters for at least two television news programs.

She was staying with her grandmother in Hanckensack, at least until classes resume on Monday.

When the telephone rang at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday at his Hagerstown home, Carlos Gomez sleepily answered and heard his sister telling him she was fine and not to worry.

Carlos said Vanessa told him about the fire in the six-story dormitory known as Boland Hall, which housed 640 students.

"She didn't want us to hear it on the news and worry," Carlos Gomez, 16, said Wednesday afternoon.

"It was shocking," her mother, Adriana Gomez, said. "But it didn't sink in until the news reports started saying how many people had been injured and that three were killed."

Belin, a biology major, waited until 7 a.m. to call her family.

"I didn't realize the news of the fire would spread so far," she said.

Following the fire, students were encouraged to go home and Belin arrived in Hagerstown around 10:30 p.m., still wearing the soot-covered clothes she put on before her escape.

Although Belin lost all the possessions she had in the dorm, she said, "I feel lucky. Absolutely lucky."

Staff Writer Scott Butki contributed to this story.

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