SINGAPORE - When 14-year-old Cheng Ping Peng and his parents saw a thick pall of smoke drift past their fifth-floor Bedok North flat and smelled the stench of burning, they realised the unit below was on fire.
In such a hurry he forgot to put on his shoes, the Secondary 3 student ran - not away from danger, but from door to door to warn his neighbours to get out.
Though he was well aware of the risks of inhaling smoke, his only thought was to make sure nobody, especially the seniors he knew in the floors above and below, was hurt. Many were still fast asleep at 6.30am on Friday (May 13).
Speaking to The Straits Times, Ping Peng said: "My mother kept knocking on the door of the old lady next door until she opened.
"Then I remembered there were neighbours upstairs and downstairs, so I kept running."
The fire that broke out in a fourth-floor living room in Block 409 Bedok North Avenue 2 killed three people and left one in critical condition.
The flat owner, Ms Aileen Chan, 56, died at the scene. Two other occupants, a man, 35, and a three-year-old toddler, died of their injuries in hospital.
Recalling how he half-crawled and half-ran through the thick smoke that had enveloped many floors in the block, Ping Peng said he felt a sharp pain in his nostrils the longer he remained in the building.
He said: "I used to think, when you watch movies, it's choking. But in real life, it was like inhaling pain. Every time I breathed in, it got worse and worse."
Although Ping Peng cannot remember how many doors he banged on to warn his neighbours, he covered all the floors from the fifth to the 11th.
The older of two sons said: "I knew I needed to be fast. I didn't want anyone to be injured. Time was precious."
It was only after he was sure all his neighbours were safe that it occurred to him his parents would be frantically wondering where he was.
Ping Peng, whose younger brother is 13, said: "When my parents went down, they realised I wasn't with them. They got very worried as they thought I had fainted."
Smiling sheepishly, he said: "I realised I should have told my parents I was going up. Safety (should be) the number one priority."
In a Facebook post on Friday evening, Mr Tan Kiat How, Minister of State for Communications and Information and for National Development, commended Ping Peng for his bravery.
Another young man had helped carry a neighbour's wheelchair-bound mother down to safety, the MP for East Coast GRC added.
Mr Rueven Tan, 35, who lives next to Ping Peng's family with his 77-year-old mother, thanked the boy for responding to the fire so quickly.
The freelance photographer said: "The two boys kept checking (to see) if we were leaving the house. They made sure they saw my face and that I was aware there was a fire."
Like some other residents, Mr Tan's flat is now covered in soot and debris from the aftermath of the fire. He has spent $5,000 so far on deep cleaning.
But the courage and support of neighbours such as Ping Peng has helped cheer him up.
Said Mr Tan: "When I came home and I saw how the two kids are positive and the outpouring of support online, I'm very, very appreciative. They are the kind of neighbour I want to have for a long time."
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.