LOMBARD – This time last August, Jason Cassidy was lying in a hospital bed at Loyola University Medical Center’s Burn Center being treated for smoke inhalation and third-degree burns across almost half of his body.
A year later, 26-year-old Cassidy lounges on his living room couch on a Tuesday after work. His body is free of bandages, but scars are visible on his legs and arms from the flames of a house fire that claimed the life of Paula Morgan on the eve of her 25th birthday last July.
Cassidy is finished with doctor visits now, he doesn’t go for physical therapy anymore and he’s back to working full time at a Lombard-based landscaping company. He also bears the mark of someone who’s done quite a bit of growing up in the past year.
“The whole perspective I had on life was altered,” he said. “A year later, you can’t let anything slow you down.”
Late last fall, after Cassidy was able to take care of himself again, he moved back into the house in Villa Park that he rented with friends. He soon realized, though, that he wasn’t interested in the party atmosphere that still filled the house, and in April he moved into an apartment in Lombard with his dad’s sister.
It’s quieter here, he said, and he likes it that way.
When he moved out of his dad’s house, where he’d recovered, Bob Cassidy encouraged his son to embrace life.
“I said, ‘You have a life to live, go out and live it,’” Bob Cassidy said. “He’s really taken that to heart and that’s what he’s doing. I’m very happy with how it’s all gone and how he’s come out of this.”
July 22 marked the one-year anniversary of the fire. Cassidy said he went to work and treated it as a normal day. He considered writing something on Facebook to mark the date, but instead posted a comment on a commemorative video that one of Morgan’s friends posted.
His father also treated the day as any other, but took some time to reflect.
“There was a moment in time when I did sit back,” Bob Cassidy said. “I just looked at it and thanked God that I was strong enough to help him get through it and that he was strong enough to get through it.
Jason Cassidy said his life is ordinary again, and he tries to keep it that way. There are, however, the obvious hangups.
There are the ongoing court proceedings for Todd Mandoline, the Villa Park man who allegedly started the house fire and was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated arson and other crimes on a nine-count indictment. Jason Cassidy attended one of Mandoline’s court dates, just so he could see the man, before letting his father take the lead on working with the prosecutors and the courts.
“My dad keeps me informed,” he said. “The next time I go to a court date for him is when he gets sentenced.”
At the time of the fire, Jason Cassidy was employed full time but without health insurance to cover the expenses for nearly seven weeks in the hospital, followed by months of medications, therapies and doctor visits. Various fundraisers were held but they couldn’t come close to denting the final medical bill that topped $300,000, he said. So, Cassidy’s in the process of filing bankruptcy, something he’s taking in stride.
“Money doesn’t control me,” he said.
A year after the fire, Cassidy’s doing things that 26-year-olds do. He’s planning a road trip to Las Vegas with his friends, he’s planning another trip to Florida with his girlfriend and he’s gone out on his dad’s boat several times this summer.
He said he’s happier now than he was before the fire, and his dad is proud of how his son has progressed.
“He seems like he’s pretty well back on his feet,” Bob Cassidy said. “It’s just making sure he’s not looking back over his shoulder.”
‘A lot of sadness’
Aside from the Cassidys and the Morgans, there’s another family that has spent the past year remembering the fire on Ahrens Avenue. It’s the Lombard Fire Department, and specifically the department’s Red Shift that responded to the fire.
Lieutenant Michael Heimbecker has been with the department for 10 years. He was leading the crew that went into the house to rescue Cassidy and that later found Morgan.
“For me, there’s a lot of sadness,” he said. “We’re responding to something, doing everything we can, and later we find out it was set intentionally.”
Firefighters see a lot of calls during the course of a year, some with good outcomes and some with bad outcomes, Heimbecker said. A year later, the fire that killed Morgan and changed Cassidy’s life is one he reflects on with sadness.
“For me, a year later it was still on my mind,” he said. “I often think about Paula’s son Nicholas and how he’s doing. It’s a lot of different emotions. Happy that Jason’s doing well, and I think about Nicholas and Paula’s family.”