Tom O'Connell pulled Dereonte Ashford, 6, out of the burning basement where he lived with his mom on March 23, 2011.
"I was searching and I wanted to find him," recalled O'Connell as he visited Dereonte's class. "And when I did find him, for that quick second it is like, 'oh my goodness, here he is.'"
Dereonte suffered burns on 80 percent of his body. When he started kindergarten this school year, his fellow classmates knew there was something different about him, and so his teacher set out to find his rescuer.
"I felt, what can we do to make him feel welcome and make him feel part of the class and the kids grabbed on to him," said Kim Russell, kindergarten teacher at Goodlow School in West Englewood. "They started watching out and taking care of him."
The kindergartners welcomed O'Connell and others who were part of the effort that day with a song and t-shirts, thanking them for their bravery. The firefighters presented Dereonte with a new bike, among other things.
"I just gave him a hug and said, 'thank you so much,'" said Sabrina Ashford, Dereonte's mother. "Because without him, he wouldn't be here today.'"
O'Connell said it's the first time he has gotten to meet someone he's rescued after the fact, but he doesn't want to be called a hero.
"I feel good," he said. "I was trying to do my job, like all the guys here. I work with a wonderful group of guys. They're all brave."
The Chicago Fire Department has one more treat in store for Dereonte. On July 5, he and some other children who have survived fires will be treated to a White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field with skybox seats.