An Uber driver is being hailed as a hero after he stopped mid-ride to rush into a burning brownstone in New York City to help rescue people before firefighters arrived.
Fritz Sam, 54, told TODAY he was taking a passenger to New York's LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday when he noticed a commotion on the street in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood. That's when he noticed the flames and dark smoke coming out of a second floor window of a brownstone.
"I asked my passenger, 'Can I pull over?'" Sam told TODAY. "'Maybe we can help.' So we got out of the car and ran over there."
Sam said a group of bystanders were yelling for people to get out of the residence, and that some people left the building. Soon, he and the other bystanders were screaming for people to leave the building.
"I think we woke up the whole neighborhood," Sam said.
When he asked if everyone was out of the building, someone said they thought at least one person remained inside the brownstone.
"At that moment, I was like, 'You have to decide, you know, what are you going to do?'" Sam said. "I don't know if it was words that was hearing in my head, or if it was a feeling, and I just knew what that feeling was in words. I just knew that something had to be done at that moment. So I just took my phone, ran inside and around the staircase."
Sam said that inside the building, he first found a man who said he had to retrieve something from another floor. Elsewhere, he found a woman who was hesitant about leaving the building.
“I was trying to run as fast as I can up the staircase, and when you’re in there, you’re nervous,” Sam said. “I’m still feeling like, ‘Oh my God, please don’t let the building blow up.’ Which might be overdramatic, but that crosses your mind — your imagination takes over.”
Sam was able to convince the woman to leave and walked out by her side. Once she was safely on the sidewalk, he went back into the building to find the man who he had encountered earlier.
"I had to speak with him in a tone of almost, 'Man, do you need me to come up there and get you?'" Sam recalled. "Like, 'I'm not playing, we need to get out of here.'"
As he was leaving with the man, Sam said he ran into a police officer and a firefighter with a hose, who both ran into the building.
After talking with the crowd of residents outside, Sam went to return to his car when he heard someone calling "Uber driver, Uber driver!" The man calling out to Sam handed back his car keys, explaining that Sam had left his car by a fire hydrant, and so he had moved the vehicle so it didn't impede the work of first responders.
Sam's passenger, Jemimah Wei, told NBC New York that after firefighters arrived on the scene, they agreed the people would be safe and they could continue on their ride to the airport.
"We got into the Uber, and (Sam) was like, ‘Do I smell like smoke?'" Wei said. "I was like, 'Dude, seriously? It’s fine, you just saved a life.'"
Wei tweeted about the experience and confirmed on Twitter that she caught her flight despite the unexpected detour.
"We're incredibly grateful to have such a heroic and thoughtful member of our community in Fritz," Uber said in a statement to TODAY. "He went above and beyond to keep his neighbors in New York safe — and still managed to get his rider to the airport on time."
Twitter users applauded Sam's actions, and some asked Uber what they were doing to commend the driver.
"So, @Uber better be acknowledging this driver with something special, because I don’t recall seeing 'saved a life' as one of the default compliments post ride," a Twitter user wrote.
"Please tell me you gave him 5 stars," another user said.
Uber had previously tweeted it had reached out to the driver in response to a Twitter user calling for Sam to receive "a lifetime achievement award or something."
Sam told TODAY he had a surprise call with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, and mentioned that his two daughters do love Teslas.
"I mean if they want to and are like, 'Hey, here's a free Tesla,' I'm still working!" he joked. "But all seriousness, I try keep things in a way where it's like, you know, you did a good thing. You'd be surprised what little things we do that can be impactful. Because trust me, those little things are going to make a big difference for somebody."