A Uniondale volunteer firefighter driving by a burning building Sunday in Ronkonkoma at just the right time knocked to alert occupants before rushing in to help a distraught father save his young son, according to residents, officials and the firefighter.

"He saved my son's life," said Melinda Cordero, 32, whose son, Ky-Mani Cordero, 2, was asleep in a second-floor apartment at 343 Hawkins Ave. when the fire broke out. "I didn't even get to thank him -- he was running around so much."

The firefighter, Ed Hope, 49, of Smithtown, said he always wondered how it is that firefighters just drive by buildings on fire by happenstance, until it happened to him. "For a half a second I almost kept driving by," said Hope, a firefighter for nearly 20 years and a former captain with the Uniondale volunteers.

Hope saw smoke rising from the building, which has businesses downstairs and apartments above. He banged on the doors to alert residents, then ran outside to tell people to call 911.

That's when Cordero's boyfriend, James Lucas, ran back into the building with Hope to save his son, Ky-Mani. "The dad grabbed his son off the bed," Hope said. "If I didn't pass by, I don't think they would have realized what was going on -- until it was too late," he said.

Hope, married with two children, said he drove to the Smithtown Fire Department. Later he was released from St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center after treatment for smoke inhalation.

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Two adults and three children were inside at the time, said Ronkonkoma fire chief Tim Blewett. They were evaluated at the scene and were awaiting help from the Red Cross Sunday.

Firefighters responded at 1:38 p.m. and put out the fire in about 20 minutes, Blewett said. The fire started in the kitchen area of one of the apartments, he said. The fire marshal and arson squad were investigating the cause of the fire.

Two apartments were destroyed. Two businesses on the ground floor were undamaged.

Lucas said he was working outside on a car when Hope alerted him to the fire.

He ran upstairs and brought his son outside through thick smoke, he said. "You couldn't see nothing. It was just black."

Also in the building were Shanier Russell, 33, and her sons Reshawn and Lavondre Stackhouse, ages 6 and 4. Russell said they'd moved in on Dec. 27, and didn't know where they'd go if they had to move again.

"I don't know what to do," she said. "It's crazy. It's too much."