A woman who allegedly jammed a pencil into her toaster is thought to have started a blaze inside a Warrawong apartment that put lives at risk and destroyed her property.
The fire erupted inside a third-floor unit on Todd Street, and firefighters arrived to find the complex flames bursting through broken windows and people dangling from balconies trying to escape.
It was 10am on Sunday, February 11 and terrified top floor residents were unable to escape due to flames, intense heat and smoke. Firefighters had to drag four of them to safety.
The life-threatening emergency was caused a resident who allegedly jammed a pencil into her faulty toaster to get the bread slices to stay down, Fire and Rescue NSW Warrawong Station Officer Mick Adams said.
"It caught on fire and she tried to put it out, but it was unsuccessful and it just escalated and engulfed the whole unit," he said.
With four men, three of them elderly, trapped on the top floor, every second counted.
"It's very hot, it's searing hot, that smoke is boiling hot," Station Officer Adam said of the conditions residents faced.
There was so much smoke in the top floor that it spread from the ceiling down to knee height.
"We had them [residents] holding their breath to rush them out," Station Officer Adam said.
Residents run for their lives
As firefighters battled to save lives and stop the fire from spreading further, some residents kept rushing back inside to save personal items and pets.
The resident where the fire started was among them as she rushed to save her cat.
"The cat just kept rushing back towards the fire. She kept trying to go back in and the police had to remove her," Station Officer Adams said.
Peter Stewart, who lives in the block's second storey, was first alerted to the emergency by someone screaming outside his unit.
"Someone yelled out 'get the cat, get the cat'," he said.
He didn't realise how bad the fire was until he'd evacuated outside.
"It was all black," he said.
Ground floor tenant Luke Bartlett was asleep when the fire erupted.
"I woke up to glass falling onto the ground," he said. "You could smell the fire, inside [his unit] started filling up with smoke.
"As soon as I went out my door the fireman was running up the stairs with the hose and said 'you got to get out'."
Barrie Costello lives underneath the home that erupted in flames and ignored the smoke alarm when it first started chiming.
"I heard the smoke alarm for a while and I looked out the window and saw smoke and everyone had to get out," he said.
How firefighters brought the blaze under control
The first-arriving firefighters at the emergency have been praised for saving lives, but Station Officer Adams said years of experience helped crews make the right decisions.
"You can focus on rescuing people but then the fire escalates," he said.
"We had Unanderra [fire station] hot on our tails so I got my guys to fight the fire. Unanderra commenced the search and rescue."
FRNSW Inspector Chad Wallace said Station Officer Adams made some "really critical tactical decisions".
"He used every bit of his 25 years experience and picked the right strategy, which was to aggressively attack the fire and back his crew that they could get it out at as quickly as possible, which at the same time would try to give a means of exit for the people who were stuck on level three."