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CAMP CASEY, South Korea — Pfc. Michael Ballard, 22, felt fine after fighting a South Korean family’s apartment fire outside Camp Casey early last Saturday — at first.

After a few minutes of sitting down, while Dongducheon firefighters finished knocking down the blaze, Ballard felt his airway constrict.

“That’s when my chest tightened up, and I started coughing uncontrollably,” said Ballard, of Alpha Company, 702nd Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division.

It was Ballard’s first experience with the quick strike of smoke inhalation.

Pfc. Jonathan Heck, 21, offered to ride in the ambulance with his buddy, but he was assured Ballard would be fine.

A few minutes later, Heck crumpled to the ground.

“I thought I had just lost my breath at first,” said Heck, of Bravo Company, 302nd Brigade Support Battalion.

“My wife tells me two fellow soldiers carried me to Gate 1. Then the MPs brought me to the [medical clinic].”

Both soldiers were airlifted to 121st Combat Support Hospital at Yongsan Garrison, where they remained under close supervision for nearly two days.

Except for some soreness, both soldiers were fully recovered and reflected on their experience Thursday.

Neither soldier knew no one was home in the burning apartment; both said they would take the same action under the circumstances.

“I would rather go into a burning building, have no one be there, get smoke inhalation and go to the hospital than stand there and wait for the fire department, and they bring someone out there dead, that I could have saved,” Ballard said.

The soldiers first noticed the apartment fire in “American Alley” outside Camp Casey’s main gate before 1 a.m., as they were walking home.

The building featured two ground-level apartments connected by a courtyard.

Ballard and Heck saw flames in one apartment, but the other appeared safe.

They entered through a window and cleared each room before moving to the burning apartment.

“All we could see was just smoke pouring out of the entrance,” Ballard said. “We looked down and saw two or three pairs of little kids’ shoes.”

The soldiers low-crawled through the apartment, yelling for occupants.

They checked all but one room.

When they didn’t get a response, they left and went looking for help.

While an onlooker called the fire department, another brought Ballard a fire extinguisher.

He went back in and put out the fire — or so he thought.

Ballard held Heck by the shirt as Heck checked the final room.

They soon realized that although the ground-level fire was put out, flames were coming from inside the roof.

They left the building shortly before 20 Dongducheon firefighters arrived and put out the flames in seven minutes, investigator Oh Byong-gyun said.

The fire caused about $550 in roof damage, Oh said.

Ballard says he learned an important lesson from the experience: If possible, place a damp, breathable cloth over the mouth and nose to prevent suffocation.

“The smoke inhalation actually scared the [expletive] of out of me,” Ballard said.

Ballard and Heck aren’t the only 2nd Infantry Division soldiers to rush into a burning building recently.

Last year, Pvt. Russell McCanless, Pvt. Reid Erickson and Staff Sgt. David Newman saved a paralyzed woman and her mother from a burning building outside Camp Red Cloud in Uijeongbu.

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