The Seton Hall Fire

By Wolper, Allan | Editor & Publisher, June 19, 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Seton Hall Fire

Wolper, Allan, Editor & Publisher

Pressing question without answer: Who did it?

Michael Chibnik wants to wish away the shadows at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., where three students died and at least 58 others, including his son, were burned or injured in a mysterious dormitory fire. But he can't. Not until he hears authoritatively how and who started the Jan. 19 fire in Boland Hall that thrust his son Ben into an intensive care unit for four days with a bronchial disorder that makes his 19-year-old lungs look like those of a 60-year-old man with a lifelong pack-a-day cigarette habit.

"Ben had trouble sleeping after the fire," Chibnik says. "He will always have the psychological scars of almost dying, of knowing that his friends died. He couldn't concentrate on school. He had to drop out. He'll be back next fall, but he'll never go back to Boland Hall."

Chibnik, like others involved in the Seton Hall tragedy, want the press to find out what Essex County, N.J., Prosecutor Donald Campolo's task force is doing about solving a case that goes into its sixth month tomorrow. "It's up to the press to hold people accountable," Chibnik says.

Campolo has not said a word about whether he thought the fire was set by prankster students or an arsonist, although his office has leaked information indicating the fire was set deliberately. The prosecutors also closed off Boland Hall to reporters right after the fire, even shooing away Seton Hall administrators and professors. This has led to speculation that prosecutors -- committed to the proposition that the fire was set -- can't find the people responsible for starting it because no one did.

"What is the truth?" asks South Orange Village Township President William Calabrese. "The news media have led people to believe that it was arson. When I read The [Newark] Star-Ledger, that is the impression I get. Even people at Seton Hall think it was arson. But suppose it was an accident. Then it wouldn't be as big a story. Maybe the prosecutors aren't talking to the press because they don't want to admit that they were wrong." Calabrese's theory is lent some credence by law- enforcement sources who acknowledge they no longer are working exclusively on the fire investigation.

Still, Campolo is expected to ask the courts to empanel a grand jury to make one final stab at breaking the case before the Aug. 31 arrival of freshmen at the newly refurbished Boland Hall.

Peter Ahr, an associate professor of religion at Seton Hall and a former president of the faculty senate, says the university's reputation has not suffered due to national news reports that Boland did not have any sprinklers (it does now).

Ahr notes that prosecutors took over the investigation within hours after the fire broke out and shut the Seton Hall community out of the probe: "We certainly don't know who did it. But somebody out there knows. And the press should be raising questions about what the prosecutor knows."

He insists students need to be told about the kind of environment to which they will return. "We need some closure," he says, then adds, "I know the place where the fire started. It is inconceivable to me that the fire started by itself. It's an open space, and there is nothing there to create the kind of fire that happened."

The Star-Ledger, whose offices are a 15-minute ride from Seton Hall, has been aggressively covering the fire, with The Record, in adjoining Bergen County, also in the hunt.

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