BRUNSWICK — The hot sun and the thick, cloying humidity on July 6 this year reminded Jerry LeVasseur of another July 6 afternoon 75 years ago.

Jerry LeVasseur as a child with his mother, Marion, who died during the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire. LeVasseur escaped with serious burns to his hands and head. Courtesy of Jerry LeVasseur

On that date in 1944, LeVasseur, then 6 years old, and his mother, Marion, were waiting for a bus in Bristol, Connecticut. They were going to the circus in Hartford.

Back then, before television, the circus was a big deal, LeVasseur recalled this week from his Brunswick home. Waiting at the bus stop, hot and sweaty, he and his mother considered going back home. But then the bus came, and they got on.

After 75 years, LeVasseur remembers bits and pieces of the day. He remembers walking onto the circus grounds with his mother and seeing the elephants. He remembers sitting high up in the stands under the Big Top and watching the Flying Wallendas climb the ladder to start their show, and then upon hearing “Stars and Stripes Forever” start playing (the song at the time was used to signal an emergency), climbing back down. Like everyone else who made it home from the circus that day, he remembers the flames.

The Hartford Circus Fire is one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history, killing 168 people and injuring at least 700 more.

Barnum and Bailey Circus, like many others, waterproofed their giant tents with a highly flammable mixture of paraffin wax and gasoline. Furthermore, the circus was late getting to Hartford, missing its first show and rushing to set up for the second, LeVasseur recalled. In the rush, they forgot to bring out the fire extinguishers. To this day, nobody knows exactly how the fire started, but within minutes the whole tent was ablaze with more than 7,000 people inside, trying to flee.

“It was like napalm coming down on you,” LeVasseur said.

LeVasseur’s mother grabbed his hand as they headed down the stands, and turned left with the crowd. Had they turned right, they probably would have made it out fine, he later learned, but in the confusion they turned left, only to find the way to the exit blocked by a metal chute used to usher the animals in and out of the tent.

A policeman grabbed his mother’s hand and pulled her up, but someone knocked her aside in the panic. She landed on LeVasseur, shielding him and likely saving his life, though not her own. Many other victims also found their path blocked by the chute. LeVasseur was one of only a few who made it out of that pile alive, he said.

The memories after that become more sporadic. He remembers a man in white putting him in a cab and taking him to the hospital. He remembers people crying, and thinking in the way of 6-year-old boys, that there was no sense in that. He remembers sharing a bed with another victim and being irritated that the other patient had a pillow while he did not. He also remembers hearing a doctor say the staff didn’t think he would make it. LeVasseur gritted his teeth and thought, “Oh yes, I am.”

He was in the hospital for nearly four months with burns that left his hands badly damaged – one with the fingers more or less fused together and the other likely crushed under people’s feet.

During his recovery, his father chose not to tell him that his mother had died in the fire.

“He intimated that she was alive recovering in the hospital,” he said. “(He) told me later that she had died (at the hospital). But she was never in the hospital. She went right to the morgue.” He does not remember his mother much, something he still regrets, but he read after her death that as a nurse, she was highly regarded by her coworkers.

In a medical report supplied by LeVasseur, Dr. Benedict B. Landry wrote: “This boy, when he arrived at the Hartford Hospital was in profound shock and in desperate condition and his treatment required frequent changing of dressings and his suffering must have been intense over a long period of time.”

In fact, LeVasseur said changing the Vaseline-covered gauze was something so painful that doctors would put him under ether to do it.

“I inquired about the boy’s mental reaction,” Landry continued, “and his father states that he is very fearful of being alone and as might readily be expected, he has a terrible fear of fire.”

After several years of surgeries and physical therapy, LeVasseur’s hands had been reconstructed to a degree – doctors recreated the fingers on his left hand and made him a thumb so he could still grasp things, and his right hand was intact up until his knuckles. He has a bald spot on the top of his head where he was burned.

The settlement money from the circus fire helped put him through school, first at the Gunnery Preparatory School and then Lehigh University. He was bullied a little as a child for being different and got into the occasional fistfight, he said, and was always trying to prove he could do everything just as well as everyone else.

He feels lucky to not suffer from any longstanding emotional trauma from the fire. He does not have nightmares, he has returned to and attended circuses since without trouble, and speaks of the events as if from another lifetime. The only possible lingering effect, other than his hands, is a tendency to immediately look for exits when he goes somewhere new. That and an endless drive to live life to its fullest.

While the Hartford Circus Fire is undoubtedly a tragedy, LeVasseur’s life is anything but.

Now 81, he has been happily married to his wife, Arden, for almost 60 years. They have four daughters and three grandchildren.

“I’m a strong person,” he said, adding that the attention surrounding the fire’s 75th anniversary has been a little embarrassing. His story is one of many being shared by survivors around New England, and he hopes his can inspire anyone who needs it.

A retired certified public accountant, LeVasseur moved to Brunswick 15 years ago.

Always active in sports like cycling, softball, basketball and even sled dog racing, LeVasseur took up running in his 40s. Despite his late start, he amassed 1,000 first-place race medals. Many of them are proudly displayed upstairs in their home. He has run nine marathons, carried the Olympic Torch in Salt Lake City in 2002, and is in the Maine Running Hall of Fame and the New England 65-plus Running Hall of Fame. Last month, the LeVasseurs attended the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.

He coaches steeplechase and triple jump at Bowdoin College, teaching kids what he views as some of the most grueling events of track and field, and sees it as one way he can help his community.

“Helping the young people succeed is more satisfying than any medal I’ve won,” he said.

The name of the game is having fun and trying new things, no matter your age, he said.

“I’ve been very blessed,” he said, “nothing stopped me.”

Not even cancer, which he has been fighting for almost 10 years. He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 71. Later, they found cancer in his kidney. Further complications with his esophagus and blood clots in his lungs proved to be additional setbacks. His only complaint about cancer seems to be that it has slowed down his running times. He still works out for an hour and a half every day, working on cardio, balance and full body strength training.

“You keep going. … So many people in their 80s are bent over and need walkers,” he said, but “your later years can be some of your best years.”

LeVasseur’s “secret,” if there is such a thing, is a mixture of fitness, activity and a positive attitude. “Don’t worry about the things you can’t change, and seek help,” he said, adding, “and don’t take yourself too seriously.”

When he is not running, LeVasseur and his wife like to go to the theater. She sings in choirs and he goes to their performances. They travel often.

“You can be an athlete, but you have to be more than an athlete,” he said.

LeVasseur will likely never know to what extent the fire may or may not have influenced the person he is today, but he believes it made him a strong person. “I was determined I could do what other people said I couldn’t do,” he said, though, of course, “you like to think some of those things you’re born with.”

“You won’t be successful the first time and you won’t be perfect every time, but you keep going. … It’s been a great life.”

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