HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Hattiesburg firefighter Ricky Sheppard remembers Aug. 18 — the first day of high school football season — very well.

It was his day off, and he was looking forward to attending the games.

He was talking to his wife on the phone as he traveled south on U.S. 11 between Purvis and Lumberton when he saw a pickup truck in the northbound lane swerve off the road and hit some trees before rolling down an embankment.

Sheppard's emergency training kicked in. He told his wife to call 911, then stopped to see what he could do to help.

As he worked his way down the embankment, he could see Kelly James cradling her daughter, Makenzie Holmes, in her arms.

"She was draped over her — lifeless in her mother's arms," Sheppard said.

James, a Lumberton resident, said she was driving Makenzie's father to work when a tire blew out. She didn't know what it was so she slammed on the brakes and lost control of the vehicle.

Her four children were in the back seat of the truck but only Makenzie was injured. She saw her other three children were OK, but she was terrified when she saw Makenzie.

Although she is a certified nursing assistant, she panicked and forgot her training. She didn't know what to do.

"She was unconscious," James said. "There was blood everywhere. ... I completely freaked out. I was about to lose my mind."

James pulled 7-year-old Makenzie out of the truck and started screaming.

"You could tell it was not good," she said.

Sheppard told James he was a firefighter and emergency medical technician and he was there to help.

"When he came, he knew exactly what to do," James said.

Makenzie wasn't breathing. She had no pulse. Sheppard knew he had to act quickly.

"I did two rounds of CPR and got her heartbeat back," Sheppard said. "After two rounds, I continued to rescue breathe for her. She still wasn't breathing adequately."

Even though Makenzie had suffered facial and oral trauma and her mouth and face were covered with blood, Sheppard, who didn't have a protective device, didn't think twice about helping Makenzie with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

"He threw all precautions out the window to save her life," James said. "I thank him so much every day that he did that for her. If he didn't, she wouldn't be here."

When the ambulance arrived, he assisted the emergency personnel in getting Makenzie ready to be airlifted to Jackson. He followed the ambulance to the landing zone and helped get her into the helicopter.

Makenzie was intubated and put in a medically-induced coma to help her body recover from the trauma. She was in intensive care for 2 1/2 weeks.

She responded well to treatment and eventually became well enough to go home. She goes to physical and occupational therapy to help strengthen her limbs. She is receiving speech therapy, too. She walks with a limp, and her right side is weaker than the left.

Makenzie also suffered a brain injury so she has memory and other problems. She is being homeschooled for the time being.

But her family is optimistic she will make a full recovery. It's just going to take time.

"It's going to be a process for her getting back to her regular self," James said. "I can tell every day she's getting back to herself."

James said Makenzie is a special child, having been through a lot in her young life.

She was born 13 weeks premature, weighing in at 2 pounds, 13 ounces, and was in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months — until she weighed 5 pounds.

When she was 3, she was burned badly when she pulled a bowl of hot noodles and water on herself. She was hospitalized in the burn center in Jackson for a week and had to have skin grafting.

"But she is a fighter," James said.

When Sheppard's battalion chief told Hattiesburg Fire Chief Paul Presley about Makenzie's story, he was amazed but not really surprised.

"Ricky's just one of those guys who's not really talkative. I didn't even know he had done that," Presley said. "But it's just his whole demeanor, the way he carries himself — he's like that all the time."

Presley said Sheppard is a great asset to the department.

"He's one of those guys that is very likable, gets along with everybody," Presley said. "He does a great job. I thought he was really an ideal choice (for Hattiesburg Firefighter of the Year).

"Of course, what he did with the little girl was phenomenal."

Sheppard was presented with the Firefighter of the Year award at the Oct. 16 Hattiesburg City Council work session. Makenzie and her family attended the event to thank Sheppard in person.

"(Makenzie) loves him," James said. "She talks about him daily."

Although he has been with Hattiesburg Fire Department nearly seven years and nominated for the award each year, this was the first time he received the honor.

"It felt good because we had a lot of guys who did some pretty cool things this year — more things than in normal years," Sheppard said. "It felt really good really."

James said she is happy Sheppard was named Firefighter of the Year and will always be grateful he saved her daughter's life.

"He didn't just save Makenzie," she said. "He saved all of us. He's our hero."

About Ricky Sheppard

Age: 34

Hometown: Poplarville

Occupation: Firefighter, seven years with Hattiesburg Fire Department

Family: Wife, Stephanie; four children: daughter Madysen, 15; and sons Brock, 11, Cruze, 8, and Cannon, 5

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com