The mayor of New Jersey's largest city says he thought he might die when he dashed through a burning, smoky kitchen to find and rescue a neighbour from her second-floor bedroom.
"I felt fear. I really didn't think we were going to get out of there," Newark mayor Cory Booker, his burned right hand still bandaged, told a news conference in front of the boarded-up home.
The 42-year-old, 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, has now taken on a new status: the politician who can do almost anything.
Thousands took to Twitter, calling Booker Superman and inviting the Democrat 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 had ever met.
Booker rushed into the burning home shortly after returning from taping a TV appearance on Thursday night, pushing aside his security detail that tried to hold him back.
Following 47-year-old Zina Hodge's 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."
Booker, coughing heavily after the rescue late Thursday, was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation and second-degree burns.
Hodge was in a serious condition on Friday in the intensive care unit of the burns centre at Saint Barnabas Medical Centre 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.
Hodge's mother, Jacqualine Williams, called the second-term mayor "a super mayor" who should become president.
Booker played down his actions, saying he just did what any neighbour 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."
Even critics of the mayor, some of whom 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 neighbourhood.
"That's the real kind of hero we need in this city."
Even Republican Governor Chris Christie tweeted, wishing Booker a speedy recovery and adding, "Brave move, Mr Mayor."
As mayor, Booker has been known to ride along with police on late-night patrols, once even chasing down a robbery suspect. The TV series Brick City documented his efforts to reduce the city's crime rate and tackle financial problems.
Profiles have appeared in Time and Esquire. He's even shovelled out resident's cars during a blizzard that snarled his city and the rest of the north-east 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 $US100 million donation to schools of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has brushed off rumours that he has his eye on higher office.