MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, often, stories about politicians in their off hours take on kind of a scandalous turn. Not this one. When Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker went home last night, his neighbor's house was on fire. A woman who had escaped the inferno told him that her daughter was trapped inside and what happened next is something really out of an action movie, with Cory Booker in the starring role.
Here's Newark Fire Director Fateen Ziyad describing the scene to New York station WABC.
FATEEN ZIYAD: The mayor immediately - initially being held back by detectives - responded, look, we've got to save her. She may die. She may die. Went in, grabbed the woman out of the bed and carried her through the fire and - with the assistance of his detectives - downstairs.
MARTIN: And Mayor Cory Booker is with us now. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us, and glad you're OK.
MAYOR CORY BOOKER: Oh, thanks. It's good to be here. It's good to be with you.
MARTIN: Are you OK?
BOOKER: I am shaken a little bit and, you know, definitely feeling grateful to be alive. There was a moment there that I thought I was trapped, so I feel a sense of gratitude like I haven't felt in a long time.
MARTIN: What about the woman you rescued and the other residents of the building? How are they doing?
BOOKER: You know, she's - the other residents are good. I talked to Ms. Williams, one of my neighbors, who is the mother of the daughter that we got out as well. She's fine.
The daughter, unfortunately, suffered some second-degree burns. As I carried her, we were sort of trapped in a back room. When I got through to her, the fire had gotten worse and I had to sort of carry her through. I had covering on me, my dress shirt and the like. She did not. Her arms and other things were exposed, so as the stuff dropped on us, she got burned. I just burned my clothing a little bit.
MARTIN: I also understand, though, that you also received some second-degree burns and you were also treated for smoke inhalation. Is that right?
BOOKER: Yeah. You know, when I had gotten through the kitchen, which was the part of the house that was on fire, into the back room, it was just clogged with smoke, so breathing was very, very difficult, and so I breathed in a lot of mess right before I got to her and was able to get her back out through the fire.
MARTIN: You know, you mentioned just a moment ago that there was a moment when you didn't think you were going to get out and you called this, in a short press conference that you had, a come to Jesus moment. Do you mind telling us a little bit more about that?
BOOKER: Yeah. You know, there's sort of two stages of it. One, I had to sort of get my security detail to back off - he had a pretty firm grip on me - and convince him to let me go, and then when I punched through the fire in the kitchen into the back room, I didn't discover what I thought I would, which would be the ability to see and move - it was just thick with smoke, very difficult to see anything, and I just couldn't breathe.
And then I turned to look back the way I came and it looked like the fire had blocked my exit. And I called her and at first she didn't respond and it suddenly just dawned on me that I had the feeling I wasn't going to make it out of this place, because I couldn't find a window. And then, you know, a calm came over and almost instantly she called out for me and I felt around and found her and then I made the decision just to put her over my shoulder and sprint back through the fire.
MARTIN: I should mention, Mr. Mayor - I hope you don't mind my mentioning - that my father and brother were both firefighters in New York, so I say that to say I have tremendous respect for the job, as I hope you would know. But I wondered if at any point you said, you know, there are a lot of professional firefighters in this city, there's only one mayor, maybe I should let the pros handle it.
BOOKER: You know, unfortunately, it was very obvious to me, the fire was spreading so quickly and there were no firefighters in sight. It really was a moment, as I said to the security detail that was trying to hold me back, that if we don't get in there now, this whole place is going to go up and she could pass away.
So, you know, my fire director came to me and told me it was a remarkably stupid thing and explained to me, you know, that - yeah - you were able to get her out, because she probably would have been consumed in the blaze, but at the same time he thought I put myself at risk. But my response to him is that I think that everybody - you know, most people in America would have done the same thing. If your neighbor is screaming for help on the other side of a fire, most people would rush in to try to get them.
But to your point, you know, I was one of those leaders who would praise firefighters all the time. Having stood there, nobody really understands how hot it actually is when you're standing in an inferno like that, and I was - people are saying(ph) courage, I felt fear, frankly, and my admiration for these guys - these men and women who do this on a regular basis, has gone up considerably. I'm really in awe of their courage and what they have to go into and how you literally have fire raining down from above. It's amazing what they do every day.
MARTIN: You know, I used to ask my father, how did you get yourself to run into a burning building when everybody else is running out? He says, I don't think about it. I just do. I wondered if there's something in your background that made you - or can you think about what it is that made you go in there when it would have been really easy not to?
BOOKER: You know, just the certitude that this woman was not going to make it unless we acted, and you know, she's - this is a family that's my neighbors. They're really good to me and, you know, I come home on rough nights and, you know, the woman that we pulled out - you know, she's just so sweet and knows how to tease me and lift me up and I think that's what neighbors do for each other.
And I, you know, really feel two powerful spirits today. One is just thanks to God because I really - there came a moment there when I really did not think I was going to get out of there. And I think I was delivered with this woman out of that inferno.
And the second thing is just this feeling that there's goodness in our nation and our communities that we just don't recognize, small acts of kindness every single day. And I think most people really want to fulfill that sort of a biblical neighborliness, and so I just - I'm grateful for that spirit in my city and I'm grateful that my neighbors are safe today.
MARTIN: Not to get all woo-woo about this, but you're probably still processing this experience. What effect do you think this will have on you? And we only have about a minute left.
BOOKER: You know, it was a very long week for me last week and I was stressing on a lot of things and, you know, this experience put a lot of things in perspective. I'll never forget when we got out of the house and fell onto that pavement, just the gratitude I felt to be touching terra firma and Newark streets.
And I think that we lose that gratitude in our lives. We get so caught up in the drama of our lives that we lose that simple feeling of - I'm grateful I'm here. I'm alive. My heart is beating. I have the chance to hug my family and my friends, my neighbors. So for me, I feel like God gifted me out of that fire and into a deeper understanding that I shouldn't take as much for granted as I do.
MARTIN: Well, we're grateful to have the opportunity to speak with you and we are grateful that you and your neighbors are OK. Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He was kind enough to join us by phone from his home office.
Mayor Booker, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOOKER: Thank you. All the best. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.