On May 10, 1995, Joshua Cade Hinson was brought into the world. I do not have many memories of him. I am now 25 years old, and there was once a time when I could remember his face and his voice, but those memories have faded after all this time.
On October 20, 1996, his heart stopped beating. There were no more first words, no more first steps, no more first anything’s. His entire future went up in smoke, literally.
Most people following this blog know me as Brittany Zedalis, because I got married to Michael Zedalis in 2012 and have avoided using my maiden name as much as possible due to not wanting to be associated with the Hinson family. But my maiden name was Brittany Denise Hinson, and as much as I hate it, I’ll always have Hinson blood in my veins.
So yes, I am the same Brittany Hinson that was in the very well known house fire in Tabor City, NC, that fateful night. I was 4 years old at the time. I have very few memories from before the fire. I remember running through our kitchen with a box of cereal in my hand early one morning. I remember the bright blue baby swing that we had hanging in our backyard for Josh. I remember our staircase, and how there was an aquarium sitting next to it for a long time. I remember my first fireworks; being woken up in the evening and carried to the car to go see them. The only memory I have of Josh is of the look on his face as he sat in his stroller and saw fireworks for the first time.
My memories pre-fire end there.
I don’t remember the days or weeks following the fire. I know that I was found inside the house and was airlifted to a hospital. I know I woke up on the flight there and they had to stick me with something to knock me back out until we arrived.
I’ve had a deep love for art and imagination for as long as I can remember, and it started with my recovery after the fire. Growing up, I was told by a few close individuals that I woke up in the hospital and knew Josh was dead. That I spouted out a whole story about Jesus, Heaven, and all that. It wasn’t until my mom died in 2013 and I found a folder full of my medical records that I realized none of that was true, and that was something that will always bother me.
The truth is that I didn’t know Josh was dead when I woke up. I didn’t speak for weeks after I woke up. I wouldn’t talk. No one told me that he had died for a long time because of all of the trauma I had already endured. One of my lungs had partially collapsed, which I also didn’t know until finding my medical records. The doctors wanted to focus on me recovering.
There was a children’s play room in the hospital. A big one. It was there that my love for art and imagination was born. I communicated with everyone through art, and I think in that process, art became a part of my soul. I became severely attached to that room, not wanting to leave it for anything.
I don’t remember being taken from my mom initially. I just remember that after my time in the hospital, I was living with my Mema, Bernice Prince. I remember my visits with my mom. I didn’t understand what was going on by that time. I knew my brother was dead, my home was gone, and that I wasn’t allowed to be with the one person I needed the most-my mom. There was one visit in particular that was most traumatizing. All I wanted was to stay with my mom, and the social workers practically dragged me to their car. I screamed and cried, was covered in snot, and still they would not let my 4 year old self stay with my mom. There is no room in my heart for forgiveness for anyone involved in keeping me from her that very long year.
I was then taken from my grandma, because she had suddenly gotten very sick. When I was older, I learned she had had a stroke. Funny how I lived with her for many years later on just fine, but somehow the courts thought she couldn’t handle taking care of me at the time and stuck me with strangers multiple times.
It was my time in foster care that is seared into my brain and I’ll never forget it.
I was in a few homes, but there was one that shouldn’t have been allowed to take care of me, or any children for that matter.
I remember there were multiple children living in the house, but they were all teenagers and were the family of the mother “caring” for me. I say “caring” because what they did was not caring at all. I was forced to take baths with literal ice in the tub. I was made to sleep on the top bunk of a set of bunk beds, and repeatedly fell off in the night. They didn’t care. One of the older boys sat me down one day and forced 5 or 6 jalapeño peppers into my mouth at once. It wasn’t until a year ago that I could finally handle eating spicy things again. They stuck my pampers on my head. They put me on a trampoline and took away the ladder so I was stuck there for hours, crying. They were abusive, and no one ever believed me or punished them. I can only hope that karma reached them one day.
The last home I was in was with my aunt. I remember she had adorable pug puppies, and I got chicken pox during my stay from the neighbor’s boys. Hey, at least I can’t get them now.
I remember many of my visits with my mom during that year. I remember playing with my puppy at her house, building things from play-doh, my Sailor Moon pillow on her couch, her final hugs before I was always ripped away.
I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be with my mom. I have no doubt that me being ripped away from her was why my mom never recovered from the fire or the loss of Josh. I was her rock, and she was mine, and there was a cavern forced between us.
So many people were determined to prove that she was guilty. It was a small town surrounded by other small towns, and everyone was eager to point fingers at a Hinson girl. They were/are vile, disgusting, horrible people.
I remember a lawyer trying to prove that I could have started the fire by playing with a lighter, and I remember proving him utterly wrong the day he held a lighter out to me in his hand, trying to get me to take it, and I refused because I knew lighters were dangerous. Moron.
The day all charges were finally dropped against my mom, she fought as hard as she could to take me back. She called the elementary school I was attending and let them know she was on her way. Everyone in the school knew, except me. When she arrived, I was on the playground. Students and teachers inside went to the windows to watch. Someone snapped a picture the moment I saw her. I ran to her, she ran to me, our arms outstretched, and I was finally with my mom again. As I should have been the entire time.
For the rest of my mom’s life, she was haunted by the fire. She was haunted by my brother’s last words, “mama, mama, mama”. She was haunted by the townspeople who are still determined to this day that she set the fire on purpose, despite Dr. Hurst proving that it was started by exposed wiring in the attic and water damage.
We didn’t talk about Josh a lot. I was more open about him than my mom, understandably. Because anytime she tried to talk about him, her heart broke. I remember a horrific afternoon in 2010 when I first truly saw her heartbreak over the loss of her baby boy. Her and my dad were sorting through old boxes, and she found one with something inside that she didn’t realize was there-his hair from his first haircut. My mom lost it. She absolutely lost it. She screamed and wailed that she wanted her little boy back. I had to go outside because it was so horrible. I’ll never, ever forget it.
No one ever wanted her to move on. No one ever wanted her to go a day without feeling the pain. Her own family held a grudge because of how much notoriety she and I both received around the country. My own cousin hated me because I received so many clothes and toys that Christmas. I guess they forgot that my brother died. Or maybe they didn’t care. Or both.
A man decided to write a horrible, lie-filled book on the fire and my mom. He interviewed people who barely knew my mom, and they said plenty of hateful things that weren’t true in order to try and garner themselves 15 minutes of fame. Thankfully, it was all buried and gone. Probably because none of it was true. But I remember my mom throwing a kitchen chair across the room the day she found out about the book, because it seemed as though no one would let her live her life.
A show known as Forensic Files made an episode called Fire Dot Com. It was about the fire, the case, and my mom being proven innocent. The entire point of the episode was to be an example for how sometimes, the law gets it wrong and the subject is innocent. That episode is now on Netflix, Hulu, and all over YouTube. It went up shortly after my mom died, and I am glad she wasn’t alive when it resurfaced. Why? Because although there have been plenty of kind words from commenter’s and viewers, there have been a ton of hateful responses as well. People who didn’t know her, people who didn’t watch the episode all the way through, people too stupid to comprehend what the episode was saying, people focusing on my sibling’s adoptions.
I have 3 half siblings, 2 brothers and a sister. They are much older than me and were adopted out before I was born. I was told one story for their adoption, they were told another. I don’t know why Forensic Files decided to mention their adoptions in the episode, because it had absolutely nothing to do with the fire. They must have just wanted to add more drama, and they succeeded. I go onto those YouTube videos once a week to read through any new comments and stand up for my mom when I can because she’s no longer here to do it herself.
I’ve been in contact with all 3 of my siblings for years, even though I don’t always get along with them. 2 of them even lived with my mom and I off and on over the years. So despite what other people believe, my mom loved ALL of her children. Even when it hurt.
Tomorrow marks 21 years since the fire. I still cannot believe it’s been so long. I don’t know why I decided to write this today. It feels cathartic, so I’m glad I did. I know that people search for me online because of the Fire Dot Com episode, so perhaps they will find this and it will answer some of their questions. In the years since the episode resurfaced, I have been contacted on Facebook and email by people who were deeply moved by my story.
At the end of the day, mine and my mom’s lives were permanently changed the day of the fire. I grew up fast, forced to process my trauma alone after being taken from her. I went through counseling for years to come to terms with everything. 21 years later, I think I’m doing pretty well. But my mom was never the same. She went to her grave knowing the world had formed an unfair opinion on her, and she was never allowed to be truly happy again. I can’t find it in my heart to forgive everyone involved, because they did irreparable damage to my best friend and they tainted the memory of my little brother.
When the time comes, my daughter will know everything that happened. She’ll know about the grandma that would have showered her with love and the uncle she never got to meet. She’ll know how strong her mother is and the trials she faced and conquered. She’ll know of the officials who put their own desires for money and a quick-close case above the safety of my mom and myself.
Every time I look at my little girl, I see a little bit of Josh in her. Sometimes it’s her smile, sometimes it’s her laugh. But despite being ripped from the world far too young, he still lives on in her and in myself. I can only hope I serve his memory justice.