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posted: 8/11/2012 7:59 AM

Lombard fire survivor awake but 'struggling,' dad says

Dad calls it a 'wrong place, wrong time' tragedy

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  • Jason Cassidy of Villa Park remains hospitalized with critical injuries sustained in a July 22 fire in Lombard.

      Jason Cassidy of Villa Park remains hospitalized with critical injuries sustained in a July 22 fire in Lombard.
    Courtesy of bob cassidy

  • The scene of a July 22 fire on the 1000 block of South Ahrens Avenue in Lombard that killed one person and severely injured another.

       The scene of a July 22 fire on the 1000 block of South Ahrens Avenue in Lombard that killed one person and severely injured another.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Todd Mandoline

      Todd Mandoline

 

Bob Cassidy was looking forward to spending a summer Sunday boating with his son when he got an urgent message to call the hospital.

"They said, 'It's 50-50 whether Jason lives or dies -- we need you here,'" the Schaumburg man said.

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Cassidy arrived at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood a short time later to find his son comatose and in grave condition.

Burns covered nearly 40 percent of the 25-year-old's body, and he had a tube down his throat to breathe.

"I obviously broke down when I walked in and saw him," Cassidy said.

Three weeks and four surgeries later, Jason Cassidy remains in intensive care, where he's been since a suspected arson July 22 in Lombard.

Authorities say the Villa Park man narrowly survived the blaze, which killed his friend Paula Morgan after she, Cassidy and a group of friends gathered at her home to celebrate her 25th birthday.

For Cassidy's father, the fire -- which authorities say was set by Morgan's former boyfriend, since charged with murder -- was a "wrong place, wrong time" tragedy.

"Jason did nothing wrong," Bob Cassidy told the Daily Herald in his first interview since his son was injured.

Prosecutors say Jason Cassidy was with Morgan and her 6-year-old son around 4 a.m. when 23-year-old Todd Mandoline of Villa Park -- in an apparent fit of jealousy -- set fire to the gas tank on Morgan's Acura parked outside. The car burst into flames, which quickly spread to the house through an attached garage. Several partygoers were sleeping in the backyard.

While Morgan's son managed to escape without injury, paramedics rushed Cassidy to the hospital with severe burns and smoke inhalation.

His father said it took nearly a week for doctors to remove the carbon from his lungs. He's since had four skin grafts, with a fifth scheduled for Tuesday. He is also battling pneumonia and a high fever.

"Internally, his body is struggling," Bob Cassidy said.

Cassidy said his son was in a drug-induced coma for several days while the burns were fresh but is now awake, though unable to speak.

"For probably the first week, he would open his eyes. He knew he was there, but from what they were giving him, he would look at me and kind of -- I had to pull my mask down to show him it was me. He would relax and try to smile."

Bob Cassidy described his son as a hardworking, fun-loving bachelor who enjoys fishing, boating with his family on Lake Michigan and hanging out with friends.

After attending Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, he worked alternately as an over-the-road truck driver, asbestos remover and landscaper -- all jobs that either had him traveling around the country or working outdoors.

"He's always been out to earn his own way," his father said.

On July 17, Cassidy called his dad to tell him he'd like to meet in Kenosha, Wis., that Sunday -- the day of the fire -- to go boating.

"I said, 'OK, just give me a call,'" Bob Cassidy said. "It was not the call I expected that day."

Cassidy said Jason was friends with Morgan but the two weren't dating, and Jason wasn't acquainted with Mandoline. He said his son has no children and was never married.

The recovery process has featured "a lot of ups and downs," he said. One piece of good news came Friday when Jason sat on the edge of his hospital bed, the first time he's done so since the fire, for 19 minutes.

"He still has a ventilator but with each day that goes by, he needs it less and less," Bob Cassidy said. "The thing he's got going for him is his youth and his strength. He's strong-willed, he's anxious, and he wants to get better. It could be a year, it could be two years. At this point, we don't know."

Cassidy said he's forever indebted that his son is alive.

"I cannot say enough about the folks at Loyola. Between them and the emergency staff at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, they basically saved my boy's life," he said, breaking down. "I owe them more than they'll ever know."

One of four siblings, Jason Cassidy grew up in Wood Dale and Schaumburg and has family in Arlington Heights and Savanna, Ill., among other areas.

His father said he's been "amazed" by the number of friends who have contacted him and offered to help in his son's time of need. In response, he's planning a benefit in Villa Park tentatively scheduled for September to help cover medical bills.

He's also cashed in some of his retirement to put toward the cause and set up the Jason Cassidy Trust at American Chartered Bank, 1199 E. Higgins Road in Schaumburg, for donations.

"He's like any other 25-year-old who didn't think he needed insurance," Bob Cassidy said. "He didn't really have a lot behind him yet. But there's no reason he should walk out of the hospital with huge medical bills. He's my son. I would do anything for him."

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