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crew of East St. Louis firefighters had ended their last shift on a down note: assisting an ambulance crew with a body following a motorcycle crash.

But on the night of July 27, amid the chaos of an apartment house fire, the understaffed department pulled off a rescue that left members’ pride soaring.

They responded to the call about 11:30 p.m., learning from dispatch that a man was possibly trapped inside the smoke-filled building.

Lt. Chris Branch said that whenever he responds to a call, he thinks about his own family and close friends.

“We consider everybody important,” Branch explained. “That’s why your heart’s racing. You’re thinking about what you’re going to see when you get there, what you’re confronting.”

When crews arrived, residents of the two-story apartment in the 4000 block of State Street were already fleeing the building. Five adults and 13 children. But one man, 44, was still inside.

Firefighter Matt McKee entered the building first. He made his way to the basement, where the fire was contained in a laundry room. As soon as it was extinguished, he joined his team on the first floor, where the missing man was trapped and unconscious in his rear apartment. A second fire engine had arrived, and firefighters were forcing open the door to the unit.

McKee followed Capt. John Moore inside. They found the victim face down, unconscious on a bed. The smoke was so thick, his nostrils and mouth were full of soot, “breathing in that toxic smoke,” Branch recalled.

At first, the firefighters tried to hoist the man off the bed, two holding him by the arms and one by the legs. But the victim’s weight, combined with their heavy gear and air tanks, made it difficult to get him through the door.

It took Moore, McKee and Branch, along with firefighter Daniel Deutschmann and Lt. Rodney Lewis, to maneuver the man around a corner and drag him out and down the first floor steps.

Once the man was out of the building, MedStar paramedics were able to resuscitate him.

With only six firefighters available to respond to the call, the rescue was chaotic, McKee said, but went smoothly. It wasn’t until afterward that they grasped the significance of their save.

They realized, “That really just happened,” he explained. “We pulled this guy out, and it went smoothly. That was a big morale boost for all of us that night.”

This rescue felt different, Deutschmann said. Moore said timing and teamwork among firefighters, dispatchers and paramedics helped get the job done.