It’s been eight years since a dormitory fire at Seton Hall University in New Jersey left three students dead and others critically injured; seven since Robin Gaby Fisher ‘s seven-part series for the Newark Star Ledger, “After the Fire,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and three since Fisher was a featured speaker at the annual conference of the Nieman Foundation for Narrative Journalism.

Now, Fisher has brought the story of the fire, and the recovery of those two students, to new depth in her book After the Fire: A Story of Friendship and Survival. Publishers Weekly notes that “Fisher conveys a deep respect and compassion for all involved—except the arsonists. She succeeds in making what might have been yesterday’s news into today’s inspiration.”

WVFC Books columnist Elizabeth Willse caught up with Fisher last week, to talk about the fire, her process, and how it feels at 55 to transform from reporter to author.


How, and at what point did you enter the story as a reporter?  Right when the fire started, or later in the boys’ recovery process? On the day after the fire, Fran Dauth, my editor [at the Ledger], called me into her office after the morning news meeting and asked if I would be interested in embedding in the Saint Barnabas burn unit to follow the recovery of one of the burned students. We all thought it was a long shot, but we also knew it could be the story of a lifetime if the hospital agreed.

What are some of the differences between the writing process for having the story appear in the Ledger, versus book form? I think it was actually almost more thrilling when the series appeared in the paper because the feedback was immediate and so tangible. Hundreds of people emailed and called. Every day we heard stories about readers waiting at the curb for the paper for their morning because they couldn’t wait to read the next installment. One day a woman called and begged me to read her the next day’s segment because she was going out of town and wouldn’t be able to get her paper. When I explained that I couldn’t do that, she read me the riot act. The paper ended up setting up a phone bank to handle all the calls. The book is my first so I can’t deny the thrill of it. It’s a lifelong dream to have a book.

Did you know from the start that you were going to focus on Alvaro and Shawn? We knew we’d focus on them once we had their families’ permission. But we had no idea how it would play out. We weren’t sure they even be alive the next day. In the beginning, we didn’t even know they had been roommates or that they had escaped from the fire together. That was dumb luck. Then Shawn woke up from his coma and began filling us in. It became clear pretty quickly that the story would be about these roommates and their struggle to survive their life-threatening burns. The secondary characters would be the doctors and nurses who saved their lives. Then we saw this incredible friendship grow between Shawn and Alvaro and it became a story “of friendship and survival.”

How were the interviews and your reporting time structured?   What did you do to observe in the background, and how did they react to you being there? I started asking questions within my first hour in the unit, but I didn’t take out a notebook for at least a week. I simply took it all in, got to know it a little. We couldn’t interview Shawn or Alvaro at first because both were in comas, so we spent our time getting to know them through their families. I spent an average of 15 hours a day, seven days a week in the unit for the duration of my reporting. When I wasn’t observing or asking questions, I’d run downstairs to the medical library to research burns and burn treatment.

Some of the scenes, like the tank room, are intense and terrifying to read- how were you prepared emotionally to witness that? What did the staff of the burn unit do to help you prepare, or know what to expect?  Well, the nurses brought us into the tank the first day we were there. They were testing us and I knew it. They warned us that it wasn’t for the faint of heart and that many medical students fainted in there. When we walked in, they were bathing and debriding Alvaro. He was naked on the table, of course in a deep coma, and I had never witnessed such catastrophic injuries. The nurses put a chair behind me, just in case I started to go down. I was determined not to, so I opened and closed my eyes through the whole procedure. Every day I got a little bit braver until I could get through it with my eyes wide open. I think I won their respect that first day when I didn’t faint.

How did the story affect you emotionally? Very much. There were times Matt and I would call each other in tears on the ride home from the hospital at night. When Alvaro had a setback about three months after the fire,and hovered near death for days, I didn’t sleep. I was terrified he would be dead when I got there in the morning. By then, it wasn’t about the story so much as it was about him. Watching him lay there in a coma for so long, fighting so valiantly for his life, had endeared him to me, even though I hadn’t yet met him. And I got to know and love Shawn quickly. Matt and I were really pulling for them, so when they had setbacks or terrible pain we hurt with them.    
What did you do to deal with those emotions, and what helped you decompress?  Lots of red wine.

What are some of the differences between the writing process for having the story appear in the Ledger, versus book form? The book is my first so I can’t deny the thrill of it. It’s a lifelong dream to have a book.

Still, I think it was actually almost more thrilling when the series appeared in the paper because the feedback was immediate and so tangible. Hundreds of people emailed and called. Every day we heard stories about readers waiting at the curb for the paper for their morning because they couldn’t wait to read the next installment. One day a woman called and begged me to read her the next day’s segment because she was going out of town and wouldn’t be able to get her paper. When I explained that I couldn’t do that, she read me the riot act. The paper ended up setting up a phone bank to handle all the calls.


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