David Dorhauer showed himself to be a hero when he rescued three elderly women from a unit block that caught fire at Cooks Hill on Thursday - a blaze that left another resident clinging to life with burns to almost 80 per cent of his body.
Mr Dorhauer was in the middle of his usual early morning routine, travelling from the gym to Bar Beach for a swim, when he saw a fire had taken hold in Darby Street.
When residents wouldn't respond to the 50-year-old Merewether man's banging and shouting, he smashed windows and barged through doors in order to help three people get to safety.
But the blaze that started just before 7am had a serious casualty.
A male resident, who the Newcastle Herald has chosen not to name, suffered burns to 78 per cent of his body and was air-lifted - on life-support - to Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.
The 41-year-old remained in a critical condition in the intensive care unit with serious injuries, including to his airway, on Thursday afternoon.
The fire extensively damaged two units in the block, between Parry Street and Bull Street.
Mr Dorhauer told the Herald he saw smoke as he was driving past the units and found flames when he went to investigate the back of the property.
"My first thought was 'shit, nobody knows what's going on'," he said.
"I spun around and raced in there. I started pounding on neighbours' doors.
"None of them would come to the door, I guess they were concerned about someone bashing on their door at that time of morning.
"I smashed a few windows and kicked in a few doors and got them out.
"Then a gas bottle exploded and the fire really took hold."
Mr Dorhauer, who owns a Hunter painting business, said one of the residents had to be helped out of her unit because she had locked her screen door and could not find the key, while another was pre-occupied with gathering some of her belongings before evacuating.
"I said 'look love, you haven't got time, there's a big fire - you have to get out now'. By then it was just raging," he said.
"It got a bit hairy there for a while. I was glad to see emergency services pull-up.
"Had I not gone in, gee, I reckon at least three elderly women would have died today.
"It all happened quite quickly but they weren't aware of what was going on."
Emergency crews evacuated the remaining residents from the unit block and firefighters extinguished the blaze.
Police said an off-duty nurse treated the severely injured 41-year-old resident at the scene before paramedics arrived and, ultimately, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter was called.
NSW Ambulance Inspector Joel De Zuna said these types of incidents were "frightening" and the injuries they caused could be "catastrophic".
"As always our colleagues at Fire and Rescue NSW did an excellent job to create a safe environment for us to treat our patient," he said.
"Severe burns and smoke-related injuries can often be life threatening, it's vital that we start treating any type of burn immediately."
Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Scott Dodson said the incident was a reminder that a fire escape plan could save lives.
Emergency crews remained at the scene throughout the day.
The cause of the fire was still being investigated on Thursday afternoon.
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