“Five minutes into the ride, we’re passing this block and I noticed that there’s some activity going on in front of a brownstone,” recalled Sam, 54. “I realized it was a fire.”
As he approached the home, he saw that a second-floor window was completely engulfed in flames. Although his passenger had a flight to catch, Sam turned to her and asked: “Can we stop and help?”
“Obviously!” Wei, 29, told him.
They darted toward the commotion, and “flames were shooting out of the building. There were glass shards everywhere,” Wei said. “It looked really bad.”
“From the outside, it looked serious,” said Sam, a father of two daughters, ages 7 and 9. “I could imagine what it must have looked like in the apartment.”
A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk, and people were panicking as residents rushed out of the building. Sam asked if anyone was still inside. No one seemed to know, so he made a flash decision to run in himself.
“I felt like I had a responsibility to do this,” Sam said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, adding that he wasn’t about to leave the scene if people were possibly stuck inside. “I had to do something.”
“It’s not my family, but it’s someone else’s family,” he continued. “If it was my family, and I wasn’t able to be there, I would hope that somebody else would go in and help them.”
Wei said she was stunned.
“It wasn’t even a calculated decision. He just ran in without hesitation,” she said. “He ran straight into the fire. I thought it was so brave.”
Sam handed a stranger his cellphone, he said, “and I just ran upstairs into the building, screaming, ‘Everybody, get out! Fire!’”
While inside, he saw one man who insisted on retrieving something quickly from another floor, he said. He also found a woman at the top of a staircase with smoke billowing behind her. He urged her to exit the building, but she refused.
“I think she was in shock, and she didn’t want to leave,” Sam said. “It took a little bit of negotiating.”
“I’m not leaving without you,” he recalled telling the woman. “If you’re not leaving, I’m not leaving.”
Before long, she agreed to go with him, he said. As he led her down the stairs, “you could hear stuff crackling and popping,” Sam said about the advancing flames.
Once the woman was outside, he went back into the building to ensure the man he originally encountered was no longer there. He was, so Sam guided him to safety, too, he said.
By then — about six minutes after Sam got to the scene — the brownstone was empty, and a team of police officers and firefighters had arrived to extinguish the flames. Nobody was hurt in the fire, and the cause is under investigation.
“It was quite an experience,” Sam said.
Once first responders got to work and it was clear everyone was safe, he got back in his vehicle with Wei.
“I apologized to Jemimah,” Sam said. “And I was asking her if I smell like smoke.”
“Firstly, you smell fine,” Wei recalled telling him. “And secondly, you just saved a life. Maybe multiple.”
She said she was not concerned about potentially missing her flight.
“It didn’t cross my mind because there was a building on fire,” Wei explained. “It’s just a flight. There is no comparison.”
Following the dramatic stop on the way to the airport, Wei — who is a writer and was traveling to Vermont for a writers’ conference — chatted with her driver. She learned he had aspirations of one day writing a children’s book with his daughters. Wei said she’d be excited to help him, and they exchanged contact information.
Somehow, Wei made her flight, and before taking off, she decided to share the ordeal on Twitter. By the time she landed, her tweet had been shared thousands of times.
“On the way to the airport this morning and drove by a burning building, my Uber driver LEAPT out of the car and INTO the building while the rest of us screamed at the top of our lungs for people to evacuate, the fire truck came, we rushed to airport, I made my flight. NEW YORK,” Wei wrote.
“I didn’t expect it to go viral,” she said, adding that she was heartened by the overwhelming response. “I think this gave a lot of people hope. This is something so pure and so good, and it really pierces through all the noise.”
“He has a really strong moral compass,” Wei said of Sam. “It was an act of pure good-heartedness. I really want good things to happen for him.”
Uber caught wind of her tweet, and Dara Khosrowshahi, the company’s chief executive, called Sam to thank him.
“We’re incredibly grateful to have such a heroic and thoughtful member of our community in Fritz,” an Uber spokeswoman said in an email to The Post. The spokeswoman confirmed that the company is giving Sam a one-year Tesla rental — his daughters’ dream car.
Uber also honored him with a “hometown hero” award and added him to its 2022 Yearbook, which commemorated several standout drivers and couriers.
Sam said that while he’s humbled by the praise, he simply did what he felt he had to do.
“Anybody could do this,” he said. “We all have it in us.”