He heard the nurses talking.
Lying alone inside an oxygen tent, hours after his mother was one of 168 killed in one of the country’s most horrific fires, 6-year-old Jerry LeVasseur nearly had been left for dead as flames burned much of his arms, back, hands and scalp.
“I remember somebody standing outside (an oxygen tent at a hospital) and telling somebody else, ‘We don’t think he’s going to make it,'” LeVasseur said. “I said to myself right then, ‘Oh yes I am.'”
Three quarters of a century later, bearing the ever-present scars of a childhood tragedy, the 81-year-old LeVasseur continues defying the odds, spending the past 10 days in Albuquerque participating with his wife in the 2019 National Senior Games – his 12th appearance in the Games since 1995.
‘She saved my life’
It was a hot and humid afternoon in Connecticut on July 6, 1944 – now just two weeks shy of what is a haunting 75th anniversary.
LeVasseur, who lived in Bristol, was excitedly walking toward a bus stop with his mother, Marion, and other friends and their parents on the way to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, about 25 miles to the northeast.
“(Because of the heat), one of us said to the other, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t go,'” LeVasseur remembers. “But then the bus came, and off we went.”
Before the 6,000-7,000 ticket-holders began filing in for the show, workers had just coated the tents with paraffin, a highly flammable wax that was a common waterproofing technique in that time. They apparently hadn’t yet placed all the fire extinguishers inside the tent.
“I remember seeing the animal act,” LeVasseur said. “That was the first one.”
As the second act was getting going, cages were lined up along the entrance for the animals to get in and out of.
“The high-wire act was beginning with the (Flying) Wallendas,” LeVasseur remembers. “They were about three quarters the way up and all of a sudden they started to come back down. Something was going on. Then, we looked to our right and we started to see flames.”
In the frantic dash to the exits – exits now blocked by cages – many spectators began to be trampled.
In the chaos, Marion LeVasseur died.
The burns suffered by her son were primarily to his head, shoulders, forearms – essentially the upper part of a body that apparently had something protecting much of the lower part.
His mother was holding him, shielding him from the flames as they burned her.
“She saved my life, but she lost hers,” LeVasseur said.
At some point in the madness, a man grabbed the boy and rushed out of the tent.
LeVasseur spent months in the hospital.
He lost parts of both hands. He has a bald spot where burn scarring hasn’t allowed hair to regrow, making him the target of plenty of childhood bullying and more than a few skeptical looks even in his adult years. Through it all, the most pain he remembers is when the bandages wrapped around his burns would be removed and replaced, often having the dressing cut from his healing skin in the days and weeks after the fire.
A five-page medical review of his case, written months after the fire, concluded “… they had a very dangerously ill young boy who was adequately treated at the Hartford Hospital but who is unfortunately left with some bad permanent effects.”
It continued, “… he is faced with considerable future treatment which will entail suffering and he will also be burdened with some handicaps which will never be quite surmountable.”
‘I’m still here’
Last Monday at the UNM track complex, LeVasseur shared his story again – between interruptions to say hello to dozens of Senior Games friends he’s made from around the country. Several times he would grab the camera hanging around his neck to snap a quick picture of his wife, Arden, competing in the women’s 80-84 triple jump.
At one point after recounting all the horror of that day, he looked up at a reporter and flashed the smile so many have come to expect from him at the Senior Games – a glowing grin that is part genuine joy and part ‘I told you so’.
“I’m still here.”
LeVasseur was active growing up, playing baseball and football at the prep school he attended with money awarded after the fire. He even was selected captain of his teams despite often being one of the smaller kids on the roster.
Years of ridicule for his hand or his bald spot or being picked last in sports only made him realize action was up to him.
LaVasseur competed this past week in the 1,500-meter power walk, the triple jump and the 800-meter run – each in the 80-84-year-old division.
He started running competitively at 41; won countless medals in his age divisions through the years in masters-level competitions and Senior Games events at a state, regional and national level; served on the Maine Board of Directors for the Senior Games; has been a volunteer track coach at Division III Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, for about 15 years; and even raced dogsleds in New England for almost 30 years, winning 11 championships.
It’s his constant activity, both in the Senior Games and otherwise, that he credits for helping him through four bouts of cancer in the past decade – prostate cancer, which led to his missing his only Senior Games in Houston in 2011, having a kidney removed, having cancer removed from his esophagus, and skin cancer.
“This is what it’s all about,” LeVasseur said after shaking somebody’s hand. “The friends and all of this is what it’s about. Who cares if you win a medal? You win by being out here. … It’s giving back. It’s helping other people. And it’s about having fun yourself. I tell people it’s got to be all about fun, fitness and friendship.”
And now, even as he’s slowed by the side effects of medications and treatments over the past decade, and really a lifetime, he laughs at the notion he may need to start slowing down.
“Staying active absolutely helped me get through all of those and still is,” LaVasseur said. “When the doctor told me I had prostate cancer, I remember right away saying, ‘OK. What do we do next?’ It’s never been about stopping.
“It’s about what’s next.”