The day her world changed
|A child's death would be only the start
of the nightmare
By ANNE SAKER, Staff Writer
| Terri had made plenty
of mistakes in her life. As a teenager, she hung out with the wrong crowd,
and she barely graduated from high school. At 17, she broke into a house,
pleaded guilty and got a suspended sentence. At 18, she married and moved
Her biggest mistake, one she still regretted, was giving up her three older children after her marriage ended in 1991. She could not support them, and she was pregnant again.
|Her mother, Bernice Prince, who waited tables at Bullard's restaurant
for $3 an hour plus tips, convinced Terri that the two boys and the girl
would be better off in stable homes. Bernice had called the Department
of Social Services for help, and the department had recommended private
Terri signed the papers. Seven months later, she gave birth to the tow-headed Brittany.
In 1993, Terri wanted to move on with her life and get a good job with a future. She enrolled at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, paying for her tuition and books with a government grant. At first, she planned to pursue a teaching certificate, but a friend egged her into signing up for a class in criminal justice. A week into it, Terri was hooked.
This was the law. It was procedure, it was rule, it was -- fun.
She learned about fingerprints, mugshots and polygraph examinations. She even took a basic computer class on DOS and spreadsheets.
While at Southeastern, Terri dated another student and got pregnant again. Joshua Cade arrived in May 1995, a tiny boy who needed an apnea monitor to make sure he wouldn't stop breathing.
That fall, Terri took a seat in her developmental psychology class next to Rodney Strickland, a tall, quiet Vietnam veteran from Fair Bluff who worked construction and smoked Tampa Nugget cigars. He was 18 years older than Terri, and he remembered meeting her when she was a little girl.
Rodney was studying criminal justice, too. Separated from his wife, he began a friendly competition for grades with Terri that turned into romance.
At Christmas 1995, he gave her a sapphire engagement ring. Even though he had two sons, Rodney promised to adopt Brittany and Josh. The next May, Terri and Rodney moved into a place Rodney found in Tabor City for $240 a month -- 101 Wall Street, a 1,081-square-foot, two-story house and garage built in 1935.
A lot of people in Tabor City knew the address, just two blocks from Main Street. Over the years, the house had been rented to newlyweds and young families who later moved to bigger houses, but they remembered the place fondly.
The house had a big back yard, which Brittany and Josh loved, and it had lots of storage. A garage was on the first floor, and closets had been added in all the bedrooms upstairs. But Terri and Rodney noticed problems common to old houses: spiders, a leak in the roof. The house also had no smoke detectors.
Hurricane Fran blasted through Columbus County on Sept. 5, 1996, and made the leak in the roof even bigger. The ceiling in Josh's bedroom bowed in from rain, and the lights flickered. About six weeks after Fran, an adjuster with the insurance company USF&G looked over the house. That night, Terri told Rodney she expected the adjuster to report that the house needed a new roof. Rodney said he would talk to the landlords about it.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, 1996, Terri drove Rodney the 16 miles to his mother's house in Fair Bluff so he could visit his younger son overnight. Then she stopped at her mother's tidy three-bedroom ranch near the banks of the Lumber River so Brittany could spend the afternoon with her Meemaw. Bernice brought Brittany back to 101 Wall Street in Tabor City just before supper time.
After a bedtime story, Terri tucked in the children and kissed them good night.
Autumn had truly arrived with the first chilly night of the season; the temperature dropped to 39 degrees. Terri pulled out two portable heaters, plugged one in on each floor and turned them on full blast. She worked on a paper for a class; she was just one semester away from finishing her degree. She watched TV for a while, and at 12:30 a.m., Terri stretched out on the sofa downstairs and fell asleep in her clothes.
Brittany's screaming awakened her.
"Mommy! I'm scared! Mommy! I'm scared!"
The house was dark, but the stairwell glowed bright orange. Terri ran upstairs into a bank of smoke. Ahead was Josh's bedroom. At the doorway, she could barely see his crib under the window on the far wall.
The fire burst from the closet in Josh's room, flame rolling across the ceiling like the ocean upside down. Smoke filled Brittany's bedroom, and Terri could not see her. She called to Brittany to follow her voice, but her daughter never appeared. The fire grew larger and hotter.
Terri was afraid. She ran down to the kitchen and called 911 at 3:57 a.m. Two police officers pulled up a minute later and found Terri at her front door.
"Save my babies!" she yelled.
The officers ordered Terri from the house and tried to reach the children, but the dense smoke stopped them. They took Terri to a neighbor's house just as the volunteer fire department arrived.
Two firefighters with airpacks went upstairs. Another firefighter climbed a ladder to Josh's second-floor window and broke the glass. The heat forced him to crouch on the ladder as he sprayed water into the bedroom. A third firefighter hosed the flames coming from a hole in the roof.
One of the firefighters who had entered the house emerged with a limp Brittany in his arms, her blonde hair and thin body black with soot. Another four to five minutes passed, then Josh was brought out. Separate ambulances took the children to a hospital 10 miles away in Loris, S.C.
Smoke had damaged Brittany's lungs, and a helicopter took her to a burn center in Charleston, S.C. She was not expected to live. She was 4.
Josh was dead on arrival. He was 17 months old.
Friends and family soon filled Bernice's house. Strangers around the county who heard about the fire and Josh's death called Terri's friends and asked what they could do. A convenience store set out a jar to collect contributions.
At Mears Funeral Home, Terri picked out a white casket in which she put Josh's bottle and his blanket. She couldn't afford a headstone.
After the fire was put out, Fire Chief Jerry Watts and Police Chief Robert Wooster went through 101 Wall Street to try to find out how the fire started.
In the closet of Josh's bedroom, Watts saw the fire had left behind a V-shaped pattern rising on the wall from a pile of burned clothes and debris on the floor.
Watts didn't like the looks of that. Decades of experience told him a V-shaped pattern pointed to where a fire began, and there wasn't anything in the closet that would start a fire by itself.
Wooster agreed. He went to his office and called the State Bureau of Investigation.