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Off-Duty Firefighter in Street Clothes Saves Burning Man, Seven Dogs

By Quinn Ford | October 9, 2013 8:41am
 Lt. Michael Kappel, of Jefferson Park, was honored Tuesday for a heroic off-duty rescue in November 2012.
Winona Street Fire
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CITY HALL — Ask Lt. Michael Kappel what it feels like to run into a burning building, and he will give a pretty bland answer.

"I mean, it's the same feeling as when you go to work. It's me going to work," Kappel said with a shrug. "It's just what I do all the time."

But it turns out the 23-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department runs into burning buildings even when he is not working, and on Tuesday he was honored for it.

Kappel was one of 30 firefighters and police officers honored at an annual awards ceremony at City Hall recognizing heroic acts above and beyond the call of duty.

On Nov. 26, Kappel was driving in his Jefferson Park neighborhood when he smelled smoke and encountered a two-story home on fire, authorities said.

The house was a mess. Authorities described the man who lived there as a hoarder. The entire place, the house and back yard, was full "garbage and rubbish," Kappel said.

The house was also full of animals. Police told Kappel fire crews had been notified, but Kappel got to work rescuing the dogs and cats in the house.

Police also told him there was a man in the back of the burning home.

"I was inside pulling out the dogs and cats," Kappel said. "I didn't even see him at first ... He was trapped in the back, initially where the fire started."

Kappel made his way through the back yard littered with junk, broke in the back door and found the man, who was in his 50s, on fire inside the home.

Kappel knocked him to the ground and rolled him around until the flames were extinguished. The man was already burned so badly his skin was coming off, Kappel said.

And Kappel made the rescue without any protective gear.

"If you've ever been close to a campfire, it's times 20," he said of the flames' intensity. "With no protective gear, it was difficult, but I got him to the front of the building and then proceeded to grab more animals, as much as I could."

Four fire engines and four fire trucks eventually made it to the scene, and the man was taken to Loyola University Medical Center to be treated for his burns.

Outside City Hall Tuesday, Kappel shrugged when asked what his five children think about him risking his life. He simply repeated that it is what firefighters are trained to do.

"They're proud just like any family would be I guess," he said.

Kappel will tell you he does not expect any praise for rushing into burning buildings, but he did pay an unexpected cost for his actions.

Seven dogs were saved from the fire. As Kappel rescued one of them from the home, one poodle bit him on the hand.

But Kappel said he doesn't blame the pooch.

"Just a scared animal ... when I grabbed him, he turned around and got me pretty good," he said. "What are you gonna do?"