Les Cash, an Army veteran and retired carpenter, had attempted to douse the flames but was quickly overcome by the smoke. Michael, the 73-year-old's shadow, say relatives, wasn't leaving without his dad.
Firefighters found Michael in one of the home's bedrooms, his body curled up just beneath a window. The third-grader was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation after being transported to Gwinnett Medical Center. His father, only a year removed from an extended hospital stay for a collapsed lung, died in the den, say Gwinnett County firefighters.
"I couldn't get to them. I just couldn't get to them," 51-year-old Debbie Cash said Thursday, roughly 30 hours after the deadly blaze.
The finality wrought by Wednesday's fire has tested the tight-knit family. Cash's brother, Johnny Ewing, said he isn't sure whether he will be able to remain in his home of eight years after what happened next door. "There's a piece of us all that's gone and it's never coming back," said Ewing's daughter, Jessica Bailey.
Six-year-old Katherine has yet accept the loss of her father and brother. "She keeps asking ‘where's my dad,' where's my Bubba?' " said Bailey.
Debbie Cash doesn't even know where home is, or will be. The family lost virtually all their possessions in the fire, though that was a secondary concern Thursday.
"[Les] was my soulmate. Michael was my heart," Cash said.
Behind her lay some of Michael's toys, strewn about the yard that remains surrounded by yellow police tape.
"I can still see him out there playing with his monster trucks," said Bailey, Michael's cousin.
Despite his advancing age and failing health, Les Cash always managed to keep pace with the energetic 8-year-old. When they weren't watching "Dukes of Hazard" re-runs the two could be seen out in the yard together, one never far from the other.
The longtime Gwinnett County resident "loved his country and loved his family," said his niece. Each morning he raised the American flag on a makeshift pole he had installed in his backyard.
Cash was a hero to little Michael, who wanted to grow up to be a carpenter just like his dad, said Debbie Cash.
"[Les Cash] took care of all of us," said his wife of 33 years. Wednesday, it was Michael's turn to protect his family.
"Michael saved us all," said his mother, standing no more than 20 yards from where her husband and son perished.
Les and Michael Cash's funeral is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Dacula. A memorial fund has been set up in their name at the Gwinnett Federal Credit Union for anyone wanting to make a donation.