Joliet firefighter rushed into burning building on day off to save family

Matt Hornbuckle named local VFW Firefighter of the year, given medal by 100 Club of Illinois

oliet Fire Department Capt. Matt Hornbuckle (right) is joined by Fire Chief Jeff Carey as he displays the Medal of Valow given him by the 100 Club of Illinois for an off-duty rescue in Rockdale.

Joliet Fire Department Capt. Matt Hornbuckle had lost his way and gone off his usual route while driving to a paintball match early on a Saturday morning in October when he came across a burning building in Rockdale.

What happened next led to Hornbuckle being recognized by Joliet Cantigny Post 367 Veterans of Foreign Wars as Firefighter of the Year, receiving a Medal of Valor from the 100 Club of Illinois and awaiting recognition that will be given this month as part of a ceremony for fallen firefighters in Springfield.

“When I stopped in the front, the house was on fire and the fire was going,” Hornbuckle said. “Glass was breaking.”

“To us, that is who we are, this is our job, and this is what we do.”

—  Capt. Matt Hornbuckle, Joliet Fire Department

The front of the house was on fire with such intensity that the heat destroyed three cars parked outside on the street, he said.

No one was on the scene yet other than several people who escaped from the first floor of the house to the backyard. Hornbuckle was wearing flip-flops, shorts and a sport shirt.

He ran dodging flames and hot embers falling onto the front yard to get to the people in the backyard, which seemed safe because the fire was on the other side of the house.

“I know how quickly these things change,” Hornbuckle said. “I thought, ‘We need to get these people out of here.’”

He learned that everyone had escaped from the first floor, which was burning, but there were people in the basement living quarters who had not come out.

Hornbuckle banged on the locked basement door, shouting “fire” to alert whoever might be inside. He was about to try to kick in the door when a man opened it.

Instead of coming out, however, the man turned back into an area that was filling with smoke to help his family. Hornbuckle went after him and helped guide to safety three children and a woman, which appeared to be everyone remaining in the home.

Then one of the kids shouted something about a dog.

“Dad went back in, so I went in with him,” Hornbuckle said, despite the intensifying heat and smoke. “It was getting worse.”

They managed to get the dog and spent some time chasing a few pet cats out of the house before Hornbuckle and the man got out themselves.

“I said, ‘You guys got to stay outside now,’” Hornbuckle said.

It was Hornbuckle’s first time running into a burning house in flip-flops, but he’d done it before on duty and in fire gear.

“Absolutely – on more than one occasion,” he said. “That’s our job.”

Other firefighters do the same thing, he said, adding that the recognition for the Rockdale incident is a bit “overwhelming.”

“To us,” he said, “that is who we are, this is our job, and this is what we do.”