Cory Booker fire rescue 'very heroic' but very dangerous, fire officials say

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is being hailed as hero for running into a burning building to save a neighbor's daughter. But fire officials say that such actions often end badly.  

Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS
Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks to the media outside a burned house in Newark, N.J., Friday. Booker said on Friday he was no superhero, only a good neighbor when he broke free from his security detail to dash into a burning house and rescue a woman.

Professional firefighters are happy that Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s rescue of his neighbor’s daughter from a burning building was successful. But they warn that most people should not try it themselves.

That’s because home fires can become major conflagrations in a very short period of time. And they can worsen so quickly that someone rushing into a building may not be able to get out.

“A house that is on fire is what we describe as immediately dangerous to life,” says Peter Struble, the fire chief at Wallingford, Conn., and a part-time instructor at the University of New Haven’s Department of Fire Science & Professional Studies. “Without protective equipment you could perish or have permanent disability if you enter that environment.”

According to Mr. Booker, who appeared Friday on "CBS This Morning," he had returned home on Thursday night when he saw flames in his neighbor’s home. A woman was screaming that her daughter was trapped inside.

Booker ignored a member of his security detail, who was trying to keep him from entering the burning building. “Without thinking twice, he ran into the flames and rescued the young lady,” said Newark Detective Alex Rodriguez, who was on the show and was with Booker at the house.

Once he located the young woman, Booker put her on his shoulder and tried to get out of the worsening fire. He says, “I punched through the kitchen and the flames and that’s when I saw Detective Rodriguez. He grabbed her as well and we got her down the stairs and we both just collapsed outside.”

Fire professionals say he was fortunate.

“The outcome was positive but it was a very dangerous decision to make and likely not to be successful if you are untrained and unequipped,” says Mr. Struble.

Retired New Haven fire chief Martin O’Connor says he has experienced people trying the same thing as the mayor but not successfully.

“It was my last fire before I retired,” recalls Mr. O’Connor, who also teaches at New Haven University with Chief Struble. “A mom went back into her house to try to save her kid and they both died.”

O’Connor says he’s seen people lose their lives by going back into burning houses to try to rescue their pets or retrieve valuables. “The catchphrase in fires is ‘Risk a lot to save a lot,’ ” he says.

In Booker’s case, O’Connor says the risk was to save a life which might have made it worth doing. “You can’t help but admire what the mayor did, it’s very heroic,” says O’Connor, who says he would have probably done the same thing. “I would have made my best effort to get in there,” he says.

Booker’s actions seem to have resonated with hundreds of people. On Friday, on Twitter one tweet said, “When Chuck Norris has nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light & sits with him until he falls back asleep.” Another tweeter identified as Dr. Jill Biden wrote, “Cory Booker doesn't run into fires, fire runs away from Cory Booker.”

A Stanford University graduate and former varsity football player, Booker rose to prominence as Newark’s Central Ward councilman. In 2002, he ran against long-time mayor Sharpe James, who defeated him in a no-holds-barred campaign. By 2006, there were reports that Mr. James was under investigation, and James did not run for reelection. Instead, Booker was elected in 2006 and reelected in 2010.

He is known as a hands-on mayor who is not afraid of picking up a snow shovel to clear sidewalks. His style and efforts have attracted national attention, including the 2010 pledge of $100 million to improve education in Newark from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

As mayor, he has faced a major budget deficit and the challenge of keeping businesses in the city while attracting new ones. He views Newark’s struggle as emblematic of other urban cities that have faced hard times. “In fact, looking across our state and even across our nation, we can take pride that Newark, in a time of urban despair, has become a city of emergent hope.”

In his State of the City speech this year, he detailed the city’s “firsts,” ranging from first in the state to have a center supporting grandparents bringing up grandkids to first in the state to have a one-stop center to help returning veterans. Now, the city may have another one: first mayor in the state to enter a burning house to save a life.

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