The actor helped keep everyone calm while trapped in an elevator at the Illinois State Capitol

By Hilary Shenfeld
April 02, 2014 07:00 PM

As Chicago Fire Lt. Matt Casey, actor Jesse Spencer is used to playing the hero.

But he ended up being the one in need when he, his parents and a group of other people got trapped in an elevator while touring the Illinois State Capitol.

Still, he put his real-life skills to use: Spencer helped with the escape plan by prying open the doors enough to get a cell phone signal to dial 911. He also kept the group calm until real Springfield, Ill., firefighters came to the rescue.

The former House star, his parents visiting from Australia and 30 other tourists were stuck in the elevator for about 45 minutes.

Spencer, whose NBC show is filmed in its namesake city, got on the elevator on Sunday with his family to begin their tour of the 125-year-old domed building. But after the doors closed, something went wrong, trapping everyone inside.

“People started to freak out,” Spencer told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was getting so hot. It’s claustrophobic. One poor girl had a fear of being trapped in elevators.”

Cell phones weren’t getting any reception, so someone picked up the phone in the elevator, which connected to a security guard at the Capitol’s front desk. Following protocol, the guard called an elevator mechanic – a policy now under review – “but being a Sunday, that probably would have been a couple of hours,” Springfield Fire Capt. Trey McCormick told PEOPLE.

Spencer, who was wearing a baseball cap with a fire department logo on it, said that’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands, after some of his fellow passengers recognized him – and others thought he was a real firefighter.

“Eventually, I managed to get the doors open so we could get air in,” Spencer says. He opened them enough to stick a cell phone out of the elevator, which had ultimately settled about two feet below the basement level.

“It relieved the tension,” Spencer says. “I took turns getting people that were freaking out over near the door. I didn’t want them sticking their heads out in case the elevator took off again.” He also opened the elevator’s fire access panel to bring in more air.

McCormick says the actor did the right thing. “I think he knew that the fire department should be the one who should be called,” he says, noting that was his first elevator rescue from the Capitol in his 15 years on the job, though the department responds to several hundred similar calls a year throughout the city.

A rescue crew arrived soon after, opened the doors from the outside and helped everyone step up and out. Relieved, two women asked to have their picture taken – not with Spencer, but with the actual firefighters. Spencer did pose for photos later with passengers and the Springfield crew once they realized who he was.

McCormick then asked him if he was star-struck to meet a real truck captain. “He laughed,” firefighter Tyler Sexton says.