A brave neighbour heard screams and tried to extinguish the flames engulfing a woman next door, it has been claimed.
A man has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after witnesses reported he set an elderly woman on fire before igniting himself.
Witnesses claim the man stormed the house, in Boyce Green, Benfleet, armed with a machete and poured petrol on himself and the woman, named locally as Jennifer Cronin, 72, before lighting the fuel.
They are both in critical condition after receiving serious burns.
One resident in the street, who has asked to remain anonymous, said the neighbour who came to the rescue told him she had been chased by the man.
The man, who has lived in the street for 10 years, said: “One of my neighbours heard the screams coming from there and ran over to the house.
“She saw Jenny on the floor of the garden. She was on fire and my neighbour tried to put the flames out by rolling her on the patio.
“She told me that the man who had set fire to Jenny then set fire to himself and tried to stop her helping the woman.”
The garden of the victim’s home backs on to Boyce Hill Golf Club.
The resident added: “She ran onto the golf course followed by the man who was also armed with a machete.
“He was chasing her until he collapsed and then she was able to go back and help Jenny as well as call the police.”
The community has been left in shock after the incident as the street is normally peaceful. The resident added: “I’m in complete shock to be honest.
“It’s very upsetting. We’ve known Jenny since we moved in.
“Her husband, Pat, died two years ago from a heart attack and he was a popular character around Benfleet because he used to ride round on a golf buggy.
“I believe her daughter-in-law visits regularly and was there when the attack happened. I hope Jenny is ok and makes a good recovery.”
Greg Chapman, 36, from Hadleigh, works in High Road, Benfleet, and saw the ambulances land on the golf course.
He said: “A neighbour told me two people had been set on fire.
“Both helicopters on the golf course had people stretchered to them before taking off.
“There was three fire engines, multiple ambulances and police there.
“I’ve never seen so many emergency services in my life.
“Benfleet is pretty quiet. It was my home for most of my life and I have never known anything in the 30 years I’ve been here like this – it’s terrible.”
A police cordon remained in place for throughout the rest of yesterday and forensic officers arrived at the scene at about 2pm.
Detectives were also going door-to-door and making enquiries.
Police have appealed for any witnesses to come forward and share information with the force.
Senior Investigating officer Det Chief Insp Daniel Stoten, of Kent and Essex’s Serious Crime Directorate, said they are trying to establish whether the fire was started deliberately or not.
He said: “Investigators are carrying out enquiries to establish the circumstances around this incident, one of which includes establishing whether this was a deliberate act.
“This appears to be an isolated incident and I do not believe that there is a wider risk to the general public.
“We understand there were a number of people in the area, including golfers at a nearby golf club.
“If you were in Boyce Green or on the golf club between 6am and 11am, then we would like to hear from you.”
Essex County Fire and Rescue Service confirmed they sent two engines to the scene and are working with police to establish the cause of the fire.
The East of England Ambulance Service said: “Two ambulance crews, a rapid response vehicle, an ambulance officer and two air ambulances were dispatched to the scene.
“They treated a man and a woman who had suffered serious burns.
“They were both airlifted to Broomfield Hospital, in Chelmsford, for further care.”
A spokesman for Essex Police said: “Police are investigating reports of a fire within a garden in Boyce Green, Benfleet, at around 10.50am yesterday.
“We received reports of a disturbance with a man, aged in his 50s, and a woman, aged in her 70s, suffering serious burns.
“Both remain in a critical condition. The man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of attempted murder prior to being taken to hospital.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact Essex Police on 101 quoting incident 311 of 13/03 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.