Location: Aurora, Illinois
Date: February 12, 1990
On President's Day, February 12, 1990, eleven-year-old Leighton Oliver, his nine-year-old brother, Tristan, and a group of friends were playing "war" with squirt guns outside the Olivers' home in Aurora, Illinois. Marcia Oliver told her sons she had to run an errand and would be back in fifteen minutes.
Leighton soon got tired of the game and thought it would be fun to build some small fires. Tristan and the other boys, including thirteen-year-old Jimmy Marrello, went along with Leighton's plan. The boys tossed leaves, twigs, and pine cones into a small pot while Leighton went into the garage. He poured a little gasoline from a tin can with a spout into a glass jar and carried it out to the yard. Leighton poured the gasoline into the pot and lit it with a match. Small flames erupted and the boys doused them with their squirt guns.
"Let's make a bigger fire," suggested Leighton. He went back to the garage and returned with the gas can. Tristan and the other boys backed away as Leighton poured more gasoline into the pot. Instantly, the fumes from the gas can ignited, causing a small explosion and setting Leighton's clothes on fire.
Jimmy saw Leighton covered with flames, waving his arms in the air. Instinctively, he remembered the drill he'd learned in school--if your clothes catch fire, "Stop, drop and roll," then smother the flames with a blanket. Jimmy yelled at Leighton to drop on the ground and roll, then he ran to him and smothered the flames with a jacket.
Jimmy then ran inside and called 911, while Tristan took Leighton to the water faucet and soaked him in cool water. Leighton screamed in pain, fearful he was going to die. "I just stayed with Leighton, crying my eyes out, and worrying about him," recalls Tristan. "I thought that he would die for sure."
Rescuers from the Aurora Fire Department, including paramedic Joe Bartholomew, arrived on the scene within minutes and began to cut away Leighton's polyester sweatshirt, which had melted and formed a plasticlike coating on his skin. As Leighton was loaded into the ambulance, he repeatedly asked paramedics if he was going to die.
Assistant paramedic trainee Tony Nelson felt badly that he couldn't do more to comfort Leighton. "I couldn't hold him, couldn't hold his hands, couldn't give him anything to grab because his hands hurt so badly. All I could do was soak him down and tell him, 'If you feel like screaming, go ahead and scream.' He did."
Marcia and her husband, Tony, rushed to Mercy Center Hospital where Leighton was treated for burns over 60 percent of his body. Nurse Linda Hemmingsen recalls the mood in the trauma unit. "We felt this tremendous sadness that he was burned so severely that he probably wasn't going to make it, " she says.
Leighton was airlifted to Loyola University Medical Center's burn unit. There his family and friends began an intense vigil to see if his body could fight off infection, the greatest threat to a burn patient's survival. The hardest part for Marcia was not being able to comfort Leighton by touching or holding him. Incredibly, Leighton slowly improved. He underwent skin grafts and endured a painful cycle of bandage changes and physical therapy.
Today, Leighton has recovered and has returned to all his usual activities, including his favorite, soccer. "I don't know the name of his friend," says paramedic Nelson, referring to Jimmy Marello, "but that's a friend for life. He saved Leighton." A lot of people think Jimmy's a hero, but he says he just did the first thing that came to his mind. "Absolutely he's a hero," says Leighton. "I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Jimmy."
Marcia says if there's one thing she's learned, it's that gasoline should be locked out of the reach of children. Paramedic Joe Bartholomew agrees. "Children have a curiousity about fire," he says. "The problem with playing with gasoline is that don't understand what's going to happen. The vapors spread out and will ignite. There's no way they can put that can down before it will explode."