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Firefighters honored for pulling teen from burning South Side house

Nina Steen (center) along with the two Chicago Firefighters, James Sewning and William Monaco who rescued her from her burning home. The two Firefighters recieved the Special Honorable Mention at City Hall. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Nina Steen (center) along with the two Chicago Firefighters, William Monaco and James Sewnig who rescued her from her burning home. The two Firefighters received the Special Honorable Mention at City Hall. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Carolyn Hudson was driving back to the South Side from O’Hare Airport, when she got a phone call from her daughter, frantic that she couldn’t breath.

Hudson told the 16-year-old, an asthmatic, on that winter night last year, to stay calm — to use her nebulizer and to wait for mom to return.

The phone rang again — this time, a friend saying Hudson’s neighbor’s house appeared to be ablaze. Hudson called 911, only to be told that, in fact, the fire was in her own house.

“I told them my baby was in there,” Hudson recalled.

What Hudson needed, she would later say, were “angels” to save her daughter, Nina Steen.

As the fire raged in the two-flat and Hudson raced home, two Chicago firefighters stumbled into the smoky blackness.

“It’s nothing that nobody else in this job wouldn’t have done,” said veteran firefighter William Monaco, as he and his partner on that day, James Sewnig, were among two dozen firefighters and police officers honored Thursday at City Hall for heroism.

Monaco — 6-foot-2, block-jawed, with a just-the-facts way of speaking — let his partner describe the fierce heat and choking smoke inside the building on that Jan. 20 night.

“What we didn’t know until after the fire … is that they had a bunch of tires in the basement,” Sewnig said.

Monaco and Sewnig used gloved hands to navigate. They made their way to a bedroom on the first floor. Sewnig reached down and felt “something that was soft,” he said. It was, he realized, a human leg.

Chicago Firefighters William Monaco and James Sewnig and  at City Hall after receiving the Special Honorable Mention for rescuing Nina Steen from a fire. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Sewnig called out to Monaco, who heaved Nina onto his shoulder.

“I put my hand on Jimmy’s back and then he led us out so we wouldn’t trip and fall,” Monaco said.

The girl, smoke blackened, wasn’t breathing. Sewnig and Monaco lay her beneath the porch, knelt beside her and began CPR.

“She gasped and we felt a pulse,” Sewnig said.

Hudson pulled up just as Nina was being stretchered to an ambulance.

The fire was later ruled electrical and accidental.

Nina would spend four days on life support. There were times, her mother said, when she thought her daughter might not live.

“I felt like that, but I’m a praying mother,” she said.

Nina, who is a senior at Simeon Career Academy, has now fully recovered. She remembers little of the night Sewnig and Monaco saved her life — but she is, understandably, very grateful.

She plans to study nursing in college.

“I feel like, someone saved my life. Now, I can save someone else’s life,” she said after Thursday’s City Hall ceremony.

As for her mother, she said: “I’m really thankful. Those are angels to me.”