Tiffany Rateb knows what it means when an Army wife opens the front door and finds two military officers standing there. She just never thought it would happen to her.
"I couldn't hear anything but my heart beat. It felt like it was coming out of my chest," she said. "I just sat there for a minute looking at them. I was hoping they'd say, 'Just kidding.'?"
Sgt. Sameer "Sam" Rateb was supposed to fly into Charleston on leave from Iraq on Thursday. Instead, Tiffany Rateb sat alone on the front porch of her Ladson home. "I can still feel his presence."
Rateb, 22, a paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, died Sunday at Forward Operating Base Summerall in Bayji, Iraq, in a noncombat incident, the U.S. Department of Defense said. The military released no information about the death, the cause of which has not been determined, an Airborne Division spokesman said.
Rateb's immediate family hasn't been told anything about the death, said Sam's mother, Elizabeth Howell, of Summerville.
"It's very hard. It's a mystery you know I sit up every night and think, 'What really happened to my son?' " she said.
Iris Campbell, the girlfriend of Rateb's older brother Mohamed, visited Howell to provide comfort Thursday.
"Not knowing is the hardest part right now," Campbell said. "You don't have that closure."
Childhood friend Chris Davis said they won't believe their friend is gone until his body arrives Saturday.
"I'm in kind of in shock that he died," Davis said. "I'm curious about what happened."
Davis said he and Rateb often went to Folly Beach. "He was the life of party," Davis said. "He was the clown. He always had to cheer you up."
Lew Howell, Rateb's stepfather said that Rateb joined the Army because he didn't feel like he was getting anywhere at the time. He talked to Lew Howell and his father Mohamed Rateb in New Jersey about joining the military because both fathers had served in the Army.
He was also inspired to join after a visit to ground zero.
After spending just more than two years in the service, he became a sergeant, Lew Howell said. Rateb was on his second deployment to Iraq and had received the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal and the Iraq Campaign Medal, among other awards.
"I was happy that he was making a life for himself," Elizabeth Howell said.
On Sunday, two uniformed men also came to her door - a chaplain and a casualty assistance officer.
"At first I didn't know what they wanted," Howell said. She had recently contacted the military to request information about counseling for families who have loved ones in the military. She thought the men were there to offer information, but they said that Rateb had died and couldn't offer much more information than that.
"It's going to take a long time to heal," Elizabeth Howell said. "I will probably never heal. I'll just have to learn to cope with it."
Since learning of the death, friends and family have been in and out of the Howell home.
"Sam was a people person," Lew Howell said. "Sam touched everyone he met. Everyone remembers Sam."
Sam and Tiffany had known each since childhood. "He was my best friend," she said.
Tiffany still remembers riding with her mom to see Sam off at the bus station when he moved to New Jersey as a teenager. They talked by phone, wrote letters and sent pictures. But the two grew apart as time went by.
Then, last year, Tiffany opened a MySpace account and found her long-lost friend.