NEWARK, N.J. – The mayor of New Jersey’s largest city said Friday he thought he might die when he dashed through a burning, smoky kitchen to find and rescue a neighbor from her second-floor bedroom.
“I felt fear. I really didn’t think we were going to get out of there,” Mayor Cory Booker, his burned right hand still bandaged, told a news conference in front of the boarded-up home.
The 42-year-old mayor said it was very difficult to breathe as he looked for the woman, 47-year-old Zina Hodge, whose mother had screamed she was still trapped inside the burning house.
As he got to the bedroom, Booker said he could hear, “I’m here, I’m here. Help! I’m here.”
The mayor, who was coughing heavily after the rescue late Thursday, was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation and second-degree burns.
Hodge was listed in serious condition Friday in the intensive-care unit of the burn center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. Fire officials said she had suffered second-degree burns to her back and neck and smoke inhalation. The hospital would not provide details of her injuries.
Booker downplayed his actions, saying he just did what any neighbor would do, “which is jump into action to help a friend.”
“I didn’t feel bravery, I felt terror,” he said. “It was a moment I felt very religious, let me put it that way.”
Hodge’s mother was thrilled by the mayor’s actions.
“I think he’s a super mayor – and should become president,” Jacqualine Williams said.
Fire officials said Hodge and the mayor were apparently burned as embers fell from the ceiling, with the woman slung over the mayor’s shoulder. The officials said the fire likely started in the kitchen.
Two members of the mayor’s security detail had already taken several members of the family from the home when the mayor arrived and heard the mother screaming that her daughter was still inside.
His security detail tried to drag him away, but Booker told them that the woman was going to die, Detective Alex Rodriguez said.
“Without thinking twice, he ran into the flames and rescued this young lady,” Rodriguez said in an interview with “CBS This Morning.”
Booker, an up-and-coming Democratic politician who has been mentioned as a possible future candidate for statewide office, said Rodriguez also helped him take Hodge down the stairwell. Once they were outside, “we both just collapsed,” he said.
“I had my proverbial come-to-Jesus moment in my life,” he said.
The mayor said he didn’t feel heroic and said the incident gave him a greater appreciation for the work performed daily by firefighters. “It all happened very, very quickly,” he said
But the fire director of this impoverished city of about 270,000 disagreed.
“He’s one of the most heroic men I’ve ever met,” said Fateen Ziyard, whose firefighters arrived minutes after getting a call from the mayor’s security detail. “He’s showing his true grit. This is the type of mayor we have – he doesn’t just talk it, he walks it.”
The mayor went to take a nap after the news conference.
Booker, who is 6-foot-3, was a tight end for the varsity football team at Stanford University, where he got his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He got a law degree from Yale University and as a Rhodes scholar also got a degree from Oxford.
Despite his past as an athlete, he said is now “somewhat out of shape.” He said he “was chiseled” but now just jiggled.
Booker is known for his hands-on assistance to his constituents, even shoveling snow during a blizzard that snarled his city and the rest of the Northeast in 2010.
A prolific social media user, he tweeted late Thursday that he was fine and thanked his followers for their well-wishes.
“Thanks 2 all who are concerned. Just suffering smoke inhalation,” Booker tweeted. “We got the woman out of the house. We are both off to hospital. I will b ok.”
He then posted a tweet early Friday that read: “Thanks everyone, my injuries were relatively minor. Thanks to Det. Alex Rodriguez who helped get all of the people out of the house.”