NEWARK, N.J. — 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.
"My staff thinks that if I have to do any more firefighter negotiations, I am going to give those guys everything they ask," the mayor said.
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 ongoing financial problems. Profiles have appeared in Time magazine and Esquire. He's even shoveled out resident's cars during a blizzard that snarled his city and the rest of the Northeast in 2010.
As a city councilman, he spent months living in a trailer parked on some of the city's most drug-infested corners, and publicly fasted for 10 days outside a violent housing project. He lived in another tenement for years to call attention to blight; it has since been shut down.
Booker, who has attracted names like Oprah Winfrey and the $100 million donation to schools of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has brushed off rumors that he has his eye on higher office. But he set up a federal political action committee, fueling speculation that he might run for governor or the U.S. Senate.
When the mayor arrived at his neighborhood on Thursday, two members of his security detail had already taken several members of the family from the home; Williams was screaming that her daughter was still inside.
The officers tried to keep him from going, but Booker, who is 6-foot-3 and a former tight end from Stanford, was no match for Rodriguez, who is trained to protect him, not fight him.
"It wasn't easy trying to hold him by the belt," said Rodriguez, who is considerably shorter and slimmer than Booker. "He was insisting, `If I don't go in there, this lady is going to die.'"
Rodriguez helped Booker take Hodge down the smoky stairwell and out. Then, "we both just collapsed," the mayor said.
"I had my proverbial come-to-Jesus moment in my life," he said.
Hodge and the mayor were apparently burned as embers fell from the apartment ceiling while Booker was carrying her. The officials said the fire likely started in the kitchen.
A prolific social media user, Booker tweeted late Thursday and early Friday that he was fine and thanked his followers for their well-wishes. "I will b ok," he wrote.
The Twitter-sphere was blowing up Friday with thousands of tweets from Booker's million-plus Twitter followers about the rescue. Hundreds of tweets were being posted every few minutes throughout the day on (hash)CoryBookerStories, one of several new hashtags created to celebrate Booker's heroics. Even Gov. Chris Christie tweeted, wishing Booker a speedy recovery and adding; "Brave move, Mr. Mayor."
Booker himself tweeted that he seen the hashtag, but cautioned: "Grateful to (hash)CoryBookerStories 4 bringing smiles, fire safety, however, is a serious matter," and linked to tips on the U.S. Fire Administration's website.
"I really feel thankful to God," he said Friday. "I feel a sense of gratitude today, to God, that I'm here."
Follow Samantha Henry at http://www.twitter.com/SamanthaHenry