A heartbroken neighbour has described the moment he desperately tried to rescue an elderly couple that had been beaten to death while their bungalow was engulfed in flames.
Dennis and Sheila Jefferson, aged 76 and 73, died from neck and head injuries at their home in Chidham, near Chichester.
Police launched a murder investigation and revealed that a man in his 70s, who is critically ill with severe burns, is a potential suspect.
The Jefferson’s brave neighbour, who did not wish to be named, has told of the moment he squeezed into their back garden during the fire to try and get inside.
The pensioner went round the side of their three-bedroom bungalow as the flames kept growing and screamed their names as he banged on the door.
Other neighbours said they felt their houses shake in what they thought was a small explosion from the blaze on Saturday morning.
He said: ‘I was in my kitchen when I saw a pillar of smoke through the window. My first thought was that it was a bonfire behind Dennis and Sheila’s house.
‘I went outside and saw the huge blaze then I rushed back in to grab the phone.
‘I then saw somebody else outside on the road who was on the phone to fire service. I was screaming and banging on Dennis and Sheila’s front door.
‘I went round the side of the house and screamed their names.
‘Then I ran back inside and grabbed a ladder to try to get into the back of their house.
‘I managed to squeeze through into the back garden without the ladder.
‘Their conservatory was totally alight and the back door was open.
‘But the smoke prevented me from doing anything. I felt sick.
‘We then waited for the fire engines – it was like waiting for a kettle to boil.
‘I was standing there helplessly.’
The neighbour added that Mr and Mrs Jefferson had been very close to their families.
He said: ‘We didn’t know their private life, but they were nice.
‘They were a close family, apparently in contact by phone every day. I think family came to visit just last weekend.
‘They were very private, I never knew a great deal about them.
‘But they were very pleasant. I think they’ve lived there for 27 years.’
Neighbour Heather Hill felt something that ‘rattled her windows’ in her home in Maybush Drive.
She said: ‘It was like a thump – it really shook the windows.
‘I looked out the front and saw smoke.’
The 69-year-old said that a group of seven people from different houses had come out onto the street.
She added: ‘I don’t know how the person who did this got here, I didn’t notice a strange car or anything.
‘I definitely heard a bang, so whether he caused an explosion, I don’t know.’
The pensioner said that she and another resident were evacuated from their houses, due to the wall of the burning house being dangerously hot.
Paying tribute to the couple, she added: ‘I shall miss Dennis’s Christmas decorations. And I’ll miss their flag flying.
‘They always had a Union Jack flying, and Dennis would always put up some amazing Christmas decorations.
‘I got on well with them, they were really good neighbours. I can’t believe what’s happened – they didn’t deserve it.’
Mr and Mrs Jefferson’s bungalow was set on fire and the couple were found dead when West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service arrived.
Dennis, who was a retired manager of a printing company, had a son and daughter from a previous relationship.
Sheila, a housewife, also has an adult son and daughter from a previous relationship.
Detective Chief Inspector Tanya Jones from Surrey and Sussex Major Crime Team said: ‘It appears the couple were attacked before their home was set alight. We are waiting to talk to a man who is being treated in hospital for severe burns and we believe this may be connected.
‘He had attended an address in Rotherfield on Saturday lunchtime from where he was transferred to hospital. He has not been arrested as he remains critically ill in hospital.’