Almost every day for years in Rock Hill’s Boyd Hill neighborhood, John Harris has walked across the street and through a tiny lot to check on his 98-year-old neighbor.
Fred Cathcart always opened his door to anybody down on his luck and needing a roof for a day or a week. Cathcart had worked a lifetime in the long-gone Industrial Mill, and after retirement he fixed lawnmowers and collected used cans to recycle for pocket money.
Just minutes before noon Thursday, for no real reason other than that people were talking and hanging around and laughing, Harris hadn’t made it over to see Cathcart yet.
He never got the chance.
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Cathcart’s home exploded and burned, and a woman who rented a room from Cathcart was blown out of the house, screaming for her life.
“All of a sudden it was an explosion – blam!” Harris said. “The roof came right up off the house and came back down. She was on fire and running and yelling, ‘Help me! Help me! Help me!’ ”
Harris said Alice Crockett was in the backyard of the house by the time he got there.
“She was burned pretty bad,” he said, “but she was screaming to me, ‘You got to help Mr. Cathcart! You gotta help Mr. Cathcart!’ ”
The explosion and fire were so big that there was no way Cathcart could have survived, said Patricia White, another witness to the fire and awful aftermath. She was in Harris’ yard when the roof blew up and came back down.
“There was nothing anybody could do,” White said. “It is so sad and terrible.”
It might be “a miracle” that Crockett was not killed, White said.
Just before the fire, Crockett had stopped by Harris’ yard for a visit. She had a small bag of groceries she had picked up for Cathcart at the Dollar General around the corner. Some popcorn, some lemonade, some tea, a pack of cigarettes.
“She was right here talking with us and then she went over to Mr. Fred’s house,” Harris said. “Next thing happened, five minutes, there came the explosion, and she was screaming for help.”
Crockett worked just a few blocks away at the McDonald’s restaurant across Cherry Road from Winthrop University. Thursday was her day off. She spent part of it running errands for herself and Cathcart, who was so good to her and everybody else in the neighborhood.
Crockett was in serious condition late Thursday at the Burn Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., a hospital spokeswoman said. She arrived by helicopter at 3:04 p.m.
At that exact same time, those who know Crockett – Harris and White and so many others on Hoyles Street and Castle Street in Boyd Hill – prayed that she would survive.
The explosion and fire were so bad that neighbors could not help before emergency crews arrived.
“I just couldn’t help,” Harris said, his head hung low. “I was too late, and there wasn’t nothing I could do. I couldn’t do a thing. I wanted to run in that burning house, and I couldn’t.
“Every day, I would look in on him. He was 98 years old and he was good to me and others ’round here. I never went to see him today. And now she is in some hospital and nobody knows if she is gonna make it.
“Mr. Cathcart lived 98 years; he’s gone.”