An elderly Gerringong man thought his wife was right behind him when he leapt from a first floor balcony to escape a fire raging inside their home on Monday.
But while onlookers rushed to assist the man, the woman remained inside, and police later confirmed she had died.
Neighbour Denis Flanders was among the first on scene when the fire, which could be seen from as far away as Kiama, broke out about 1pm.
He said a bystander had ‘‘caught’’ the man, aged in his nineties, when he jumped from his home.
‘‘I helped carry him up to the next house because we were still in front of the fire,’’ Mr Flanders said.
‘‘When we asked him about the wife he just said she was behind him as he jumped.’’
There were reports the man had to be ‘‘coaxed’’ by onlookers before he jumped from the two-metre high balcony.
Mr Flanders and several other witnesses including an off-duty nurse then poured water on the man, who was suffering severe burns to his head, before he was taken away by ambulance.
The man was later flown to Royal North Shore Hospital suffering life-threatening injuries.
Mr Flanders said the man told him an electric blanket had started the fire.
‘‘She [the woman] felt the cold very badly so she had an electric blanket on her,’’ Mr Flanders said.
‘‘He said something ... went wrong with the electric blanket.’’
Neighbours said the couple had lived in the house on Osborne Street for several decades.
They said the man, who built the house, loved tinkering with inventions.
Many of his Christmas light creations could be seen from the road outside.
Lake Illawarra police inspector Andrew Koutsoufis said four police crews attended the fire.
‘‘We’ve attended ... to find the house well alight,’’ Insp Koutsoufis said.
‘‘An elderly male has come out of the house suffering from burns and smoke inhalation.
‘‘At this stage it doesn’t appear suspicious.’’
He said there had been some risk to nearby properties, however fire crews had been able to contain the blaze.
Multiple Rural Fire Service and NSW Fire and Rescue crews attended the fire, which burnt for several hours.
Neighbour Kirrin Hogarth said the first she became aware of the flames was a ‘‘popping’’ sound as the windows exploded.
‘‘I saw flames from both windows then in five to 10 minutes the roof exploded,’’ Ms Hogarth said. ‘‘Then we just watched it burn.’’
Police from Lake Illawarra Local Area Command established a crime scene at the home and are continuing inquiries.
A report will be prepared for the Coroner.