It was about 4 a.m. Thursday and the wind howled through the trees in the leafy Sweetgrass neighborhood in Mount Pleasant. The rain pelted the windows on the northeast side of the two-story house on Horseshoe Bend. Hurricane Dorian was intensifying.
Linda Caston, 74, was upstairs in bed. She had been coping with health issues and her husband, 80-year-old Donnie Caston, was taking care of her. Possibly he was downstairs in a chair when, at 4:15 a.m., an explosion cracked open the rear of the house and set it afire. Thick black smoke quickly filled the space and billowed upstairs.
Donnie Caston, an athletic man who loved the outdoors, couldn’t get to the telephone, so he dashed out the front door and across the street to ask his neighbor to call 911. Then he ran right back into the burning house.
The neighbor ran after him but stopped short of entering the blackened structure, according to the couple's son, Timothy Caston, and his girlfriend Sherri Birrell.
“If he hadn’t gone back in he might be alive,” Timothy Caston said, choking back tears. “He tried to save her.”
When the firefighters arrived, they found Linda unconscious in the bedroom and Donnie collapsed at the foot of the stairs, their son said.
At the hospital, Linda went into cardiac arrest and was quickly hooked up to the machines, Caston said. His father could not be revived. About 16 hours later, Linda died, too.
“She was gone already,” Timothy Caston said, referring to the start of the fire and the injuries she sustained at the house.
Both succumbed to smoke inhalation, the Charleston County coroner's office confirmed.
Mount Pleasant officials had no new information late Friday on what caused the fire, but it likely was triggered by an outside source. The power was out in the neighborhood at the time. The trunk of a medium-sized tree in the corner of the small backyard was split, with more than half the tree lying over the fence.
The back of the house was badly scorched, suggesting an intense and sudden conflagration, possibly a lightning strike.
On Friday, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division indicated there had not been any storm-related deaths in the state. The county coroner, relying on information from investigators, must determine a death is storm-related before the state officially reports it.
The house is not salvageable, Birrell said during a break from scouring the property for valuables. Two fire marshals pulled up Friday morning to offer condolences and assistance, and to have a look at the damage.
Timothy Caston said his parents were generous, loving people who met at the University of Georgia. He was from Jackson, she was from Winterville, near Athens. He went on to become a physical education teacher and coach, then a vice principal in the Georgia public schools. She taught first, second and third grade for 30 years, and was named Clarke County Teacher of the Year in 1986.
Their other son, Kevin, moved to the Charleston area in 2000, and soon Donnie and Linda purchased a vacation home on Folly Beach. Timothy came to the area in 2004 and stayed at the Folly Beach house until his parents sold it in order to buy their Mount Pleasant property.
Kevin Caston died in 2010 at age 40.
Timothy Caston and Sherri Birrell live in Goose Creek now. He has three children who his parents adored, he said.
“They were loving people,” he said. “They loved everybody. They would do anything for anybody. They were ‘home.’ They supported me no matter what. Now everything’s gone.”