A MAN who set himself on fire outside NZ's Parliament yesterday has died.

Witnesses to yesterday's horrifying tragedy say they had seen the man earlier in the week outside the Court of Appeal with protest signs that suggested he was involved in a custody dispute.

He died in Wellington Hospital overnight.

Witnesses say kitchen staff from the Backbencher pub sprinted with buckets of water and fire extinguishers to help douse the fire yesterday afternoon.

Eli Chamberlain was walking through the Parliament grounds when he saw smoke billowing from near the forecourt.

"I thought a protester had set off fireworks," he said. "Then I realised it was something quite serious. I didn't see him on fire but I saw people running towards him."

The injured man was lying on the ground with up to 20 people surrounding him. Most were standing in shocked silence but several were pouring water over him, Chamberlain said.

"It was pretty out of the blue - kind of shocking and unexpected," Chamberlain said.

"They were running like mad to help this stranger. They were sprinting for their lives, pouring water straight onto him but he didn't appear to move at all."

One man looked terrified but was still sprinting back and forth with water, doing a "crazy job".

Another witness saw the man walking around on fire, then heard a high-pitched scream and saw the man fall over.

A man from the Backbencher ran with a fire extinguisher to help put out the flames, while someone else used a bag to keep the fire down. Security guards brought wet blankets to cover the man.

The man was unconscious and unresponsive, and badly burned. A strong smell of petrol or accelerant was in the air.

Within five minutes the area was flooded with emergency responders. A short time later the patient was covered in a sheet and put in an ambulance.

The man was taken to Wellington Hospital in a critical condition.

One witness suggested the fire may have been an accident and the man had been trying to set fire to his signs. But Chamberlain said the signs were propped several metres away and were intact.

Several people said they had seen the man with his signs outside the Court of Appeal this week. The wording suggested his protest was related to a child custody dispute.

Police are continuing to investigate on behalf of the coroner. They were making inquiries into the man's identity and motives last night and were treating the area as a crime scene. They have asked for anyone with footage to contact police.

WHERE TO GET HELP

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 000.

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