Staff Photo: Jason Braverman . Jessica Bailey, center, tries to control her emotions, as she is comforted by friends, family and Harbins Elementary School principal Cindy Truett, far left, on Wednesday morning after Bailey's nephew, Michael Cash, 8, and uncle, Leslie Cash, were killed in a fire at their home near Dacula. Michael attended Harbins Elementary.
DACULA -- When they think of Leslie Cash, the deep-rooted families that occupy a cluster of six homes on Dacula's Crowe Road recall a devoted family man whose advancing age hardly diminished his energy for raising kids the right way.
The example set by the 73-year-old Army veteran, in the end, apparently paid dividends.
Authorities said Leslie Cash's son -- Michael Cash, 8 -- awoke his mother and sister Wednesday morning, alerting them that their one-story former farmhouse at 2041 Crowe Road was on fire. Trying to reach his father in the home's den, Michael reportedly became stranded in a front bedroom, and both father and son were trapped.
Fire crews who responded at 8:32 a.m. to the rural home off Harbins Road found Leslie dead in the den, and his son clinging to life with smoke-inhalation and burn injuries. Michael was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center, where he died shortly after arrival, said Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge.
"I understand the boy could have been telling his father to come out, to seek refuge in that front room," Rutledge said. "It's a horrible thing to have happen."
Firefighters spared the two-bedroom, white home with black shutters, knocking the fire down about 30 minutes after arrival.
Investigators believe the fire may have originated in the home's den, where Leslie's body was found, but an exact cause is undetermined, Rutledge said.
"It's believed (Leslie) was attempting to put the fire out when he died," Rutledge said.
Neighbors recalled heroic efforts by two passersby who spotted the home burning. One man pushed a window air-conditioner unit into a back bedroom, allowing Leslie's daughter, Katherine Cash, 6, to escape. Another man tried with a crowbar to gain entry in the front door, but heat, smoke and collapsing materials prevented that, Rutledge said.
Katherine was transported with her mother, Debbie Cash, 51, to Gwinnett Medical Center for evaluation of minor injuries. Debbie fled out the back door, under the impression her children were in tow, Rutledge said.
Neighbor Sheila Lynch made efforts to extinguish the fire with a garden hose alongside her mother.
"(The fire) was just too much ... Debbie kept yelling, 'Michael's in there, Michael's in there ...'" Lynch said.
Recalled Leslie's niece and neighbor Jessica Bailey: "By the time I got to the front door, it just blew up ... just flames," she said.
Bailey described Michael, a rising second-grader at Harbins Elementary School, as a typical 8-year-old boy -- "energetic, playful, outgoing." He loved the outdoors, jumping on trampolines and "The Dukes of Hazzard" reruns.
Leslie, a retired employee of DeKalb County Schools, toured Vietnam in the U.S. Army and had been married to Debbie for three decades, neighbors said. The couple have an older son and daughter who didn't live with them; the younger children were adopted, neighbors said.
"I don't ever remember an afternoon that he wasn't in the front yard with his two kids," said neighbor Christa Royster.
Known to dot his lawn in American flags, Leslie "was very proud of his military background," Bailey said. "There wasn't a day he wasn't working in the yard, or keeping preoccupied."
Neighbors who spoke with Debbie said she received burns to her hair, while her daughter complained of smoke inhalation. Debbie had taken the children school shopping for Mario Bros. backpacks and supplies yesterday, which were lost in the fire.
"They lost everything," Bailey said. "Only thing that survived was (Debbie's) medication."
Anyone wishing to donate clothing or school supplies is urged to email neighbor Jessica Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org, who is coordinating collection efforts. A bank memorial fund is also planned.