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Newark mayor rescues neighbor from burning house

Newark Mayor Cory Booker stands in front of a boarded-up 433 Hawthorne Avenue in Newark, N.J., Friday, April 13, 2012 as he talks about rescuing a neighbor Thursday from a fire at the home.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker stands in front of a boarded-up 433 Hawthorne Avenue in Newark, N.J., Friday, April 13, 2012 as he talks about rescuing a neighbor Thursday from a fire at the home.
Mel Evans, Associated Press

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 he rushed into the burning home shortly after returning from taping a television appearance on Thursday, pushing aside his security detail that tried to hold him back and rushed into the apartment where 47-year-old Zina Hodge was trapped.

"Every time I breathed in, a felt a blackness, a heat coming into my lungs," Booker said, adding he made his way down the smoky hallway to a bedroom, following Hodge's faint calls of; "I'm here, I'm here. Help! I'm here."

He lifted her from a bed where she had been sleeping and was now barely conscious, Booker said, but then couldn't find the way out.

"That was the moment I had a conversation with God," Booker said. "I really didn't think we were going to get out of there."

Booker, 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, who is 6-foot-3, and a former tight end for the varsity football team at Stanford University, where he got his undergraduate and master's degrees, was no match for Detective Alex Rodriguez, who is trained to protect him, not fight him.

"It wasn't easy trying to hold him by the belt," Rodriguez, who is considerably shorter and slimmer than the man he is assigned to protect. "He was insisting: If I don't go in there, this lady is going to die."

Booker, an up-and-coming Democratic politician who has been mentioned as a 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 New Jersey's largest city of about 270,000 disagreed.

"He's one of the most heroic men I've ever met," said Fateen Ziyad, 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."

As mayor, Booker has been known to ride along with police on late-night patrols, once even chasing down a robbery suspect. The Peabody award-winning Sundance Channel series "Brick City" documented his efforts to decrease the city's crime rate and tackle its ongoing financial problems. He's even shoveled out resident's cars 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."

The Twitter-sphere was blowing up Friday with thousands of tweets from Booker's million-plus Twitter followers about the rescue.

Even Gov. Chris Christie tweeted, wishing Booker a speedy recovery and adding; "Brave move, Mr. Mayor."

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