NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In a smoky stairwell, with embers falling from the ceiling and his neighbor slung over his shoulder, Cory Booker called it his "proverbial come-to-Jesus moment."
The mayor of New Jersey's largest city was carrying out a constituent he had rushed into a burning home to save, first pushing aside his security detail who tried to hold him back by his belt. He didn't feel like a hero: "I felt terror," he told reporters on Friday, holding a children's fire safety video with his burned, bandaged right hand.
The 42-year-old mayor, who has dug out snowbound residents in a blizzard, lived in a rundown housing project to make a point and tagged along on police patrols to lecture drug dealers, took on a new status Friday: the politician who can do almost anything.
Thousands took to Twitter, calling Booker Superman and inviting him to solve the North Korean missile crisis or run for president. The governor called it a "brave move" and the fire director said the mayor was one of the most heroic men he'd ever met.
Booker, standing in front of the boarded-up home Friday, said, "I did what any neighbor would do — help a neighbor."
He ended up with second-degree burns and smoke inhalation after he brought out Zina Hodge, 47, from her smoky bedroom in the home next to his in a rough neighborhood of brick homes, storefront churches and small bodegas. He was coughing heavily after the rescue late Thursday.
Booker rushed into the burning home shortly after returning from taping a television appearance, after Hodge's mother screamed that her daughter was trapped. Following her faint calls of; "I'm here, I'm here. Help! I'm here," Booker lifted her from her bed and carried her on his shoulders through the burning kitchen, where flames had rolled over the roof and back down the wall.
He nearly panicked in the stairwell, where Newark Detective Alex Rodriguez was helping him bring Hodge out. He couldn't see through the smoke.
"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."
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.
Hodge's mother, Jacqualine Williams, called the second-term mayor "a super mayor" who should become president.
Booker — a former college football player — downplayed his actions and said he's no hero.
"I didn't feel bravery, I felt terror," he said. "I couldn't breathe. It was a moment I felt very religious, let me put it that way."
Even critics of the mayor, some who refer to him as "Story Booker" for what they call a history of courting publicity to boost his national image while ignoring problems in the impoverished city, offered grudging praise.
"I commend the mayor for what he's done, but the people in this city need jobs," said Joanne Miller, who lives in Booker's neighborhood. "That's the real kind of hero we need in this city."
On CNN's Piers Morgan Show on Friday night, Booker called some of the tweets and comments "way over the top," and said he has newfound respect for firefighters, who do the same work every day.