NEW ORLEANS -- For the Brown family, a nervous breakdown by the matriarch, two more children, depression and decades of double-takes in the strangest of settings all followed the Brown house fire.
All but the youngest of the seven survivors describe their struggle with trying to shake the memory of the horror that morning.
“I remember being in the street. They putting blankets on us, giving us hot cocoa. Putting us in the car,” said Tansy Nickerson, one of the surviving children, recalling the tenderness that followed, people trying to comfort children while their parents were inconsolable.
Simona Brown is the only person who says she saw Ramona alive after the fire. Her grandmother, Dorothy Nickerson, said she believes she received a phone call from the girl.
And for years, Simona has been telling her family that she saw Ramona kidnapped in the chaos after the fire by an interracial couple in a gold-colored, Cadillac-type sedan.
Searching for Ramona Brown
33 years later
That story was never told to investigators until WWL-TV started looking into the fire 33 years later. Simona’s young age combined with her mother’s tortured mental state let the story slip through the cracks.
“Simona went into a shell then. She wouldn't speak or nothing like that for a while, for a couple of years. She always did tell my momma certain things about, we used to call her al. And I don't know. I don't... I don't know,” said Tiffany Nickerson about her younger sister.
“I think about it a lot and I get depressed. I tend to shut down and not talk to no one for a while,” Simona said.
One of the ways their mother, Johnnie Mae Brown, tried to cope with the loss was having two more children.
She said God blessed her with two more boys and while she knows she could never replace her two sons who died, she named one of the new babies Aubrey, like the boy who died, and Kedrin, after Kevin who died.
“My momma tried to name us after them,” Aubrey said.
Simona said Johnnie Mae was, “Depressed. Wanting not to live anymore because of her kids.”
“It still bothers me too. I can't sleep at night. I'll be the only one walking around the house, lookin’,” Tansy said.
“Do you ever get over it? No. Nope. It's always there. Yes, m'am. Like a repeat of the fire when it first started. A repeat of everything,” Simona said, holding back tears.
“All of us get emotional at times. So, it's been, you know, rough, But you still have to take it one day at a time,” Tiffany Nickerson said.
While the lost children were still small, the surviving siblings have distinct memories of them.
Tansy said she will remember Ramona’s pretty smile. Simona, still fighting tears, said she vividly remembers playing hide and seek with Ramona.
Both Simona and Tiffany said every time they hear Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” they think of Aubrey, Jr.
“That's his favorite. He liked to wear boots. Cowboy boots and a checkered shirt and when beat it come on we would be at the breakfast table, we would just sing or dance. Good times. I won't ever forget it,” Simona said.
“I wish I could've known them,” Aubrey said about Aubrey, Jr., Kevin and Ramona, “I just want to see my sister.”
“She was sweet. Sweet. I wouldn't mind holding her in my arms again,” Tansy said wiping tears.
“Years after that we was always just going around lookin’. You know? See if we could place her. Find her,” Tiffany said.
“Whomever has her and they know she doesn't belong to them and they know she has a family out here that loves her and that miss her,” Simona continued, “Even if they're on their dying bed, let her know that her family is looking for her.”
“I know I'd give her a big old hug and a kiss. Probably wouldn't let her go,” said Tansy.
WWL-TV reached out to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for their expertise. A spokeswoman said their policy is to work with law enforcement on cases of missing children and because no missing person report was ever filed with NOPD, they could not assist with the case.