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Morgan State student killed in Baltimore gas explosion remembered as talented writer with ‘such a bright future’

Joseph Graham, 20, a rising sophomore and engineering student at Morgan State University, was killed in a gas explosion Monday morning in Northwest Baltimore.
Joseph Graham, 20, a rising sophomore and engineering student at Morgan State University, was killed in a gas explosion Monday morning in Northwest Baltimore. (Courtesy of Isaac Graham)

After an explosion rocked a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood Monday, Joseph Graham’s family spent the day frantically trying to reach the 20-year-old Morgan State University student, who had spent the night at a friend’s house on a block now covered in debris.

They called his phone, and it went straight to voicemail; they contacted his friend, who had trouble remembering what had happened in the explosion; and they frantically traveled to different hospitals to find him. Their grim search finally ended around 1 a.m. Tuesday, when firefighters found Graham’s remains underneath the rubble of a brick rowhome on Labyrinth Road.

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Joseph Graham Sr. confirmed his son was one of two people found dead in the wreckage. At his Edmondson home in West Baltimore, the distraught father was surrounded by family friends. He declined to comment further.

The younger Joseph Graham, a rising Morgan State University sophomore, had gone to a party with his friend Sunday evening and spent the night at the friend’s house, his uncle Isaac Graham said.

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Fire officials previously said a woman also was killed in the gas explosion around 10 a.m. Monday, but officials have not publicly identified the victims.

At least seven others were injured, including five who were in critical condition as of Tuesday morning.

Graham’s death sent shock waves through closely knit Baltimore communities.

“Everyone was like, ‘Not Joseph.’ I would never think something like this could happen to him,” said Graham’s friend Ty’lor Schnella.

Mark Miazga, who taught Graham freshman English at Baltimore City College, said a group of English teachers exchanged texts, grieving Graham’s death.

“He had such a bright future,” Miazga said. “What a loss for Baltimore it is.”

Graham’s 12th-grade English teacher Lena Tashjian also spoke about Graham’s death on social media, writing, “The worst day for any teacher is the day you learn that you lost one of your students. His kindness, his compassion were unparalleled. His talent and generosity were exceptional. He radically transformed his path, his narrative and he was on his way. I am heartbroken.”

Family had not heard from Graham since Sunday, Isaac Graham said at the scene of the explosion Monday. At that point, officials had not provided information about him, his uncle said.

Graham’s friend didn’t even remember that Graham was with him or the party at all, Graham’s uncle said. The friend’s aunt had told them they were being treated at Mercy Medical Center downtown, but the family could not find that Graham had ever been admitted there. They tried several other hospitals but still didn’t find him Monday.

When they were unable to locate him, the family waited at the scene on Labyrinth, where some residents had told them of hearing someone yelling help from the basement where Graham had been staying.

The family continued to wait for information at the scene, where firefighters worked into the evening, digging through the rubble of three leveled homes, trying to locate other victims.

Just before 1 a.m. Tuesday, fire officials said that they had found the body of a man.

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Graham had graduated from City College and was studying electrical engineering at Morgan State’s Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. School of Engineering, Morgan officials said in a statement.

“As a community we mourn the tragic loss of life as a result of this calamitous event and offer our deepest sympathies to the Graham family. We ask that you keep them and their extended family and friends in prayer,” the statement said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also spoke of Graham’s death on Twitter.

“We are deeply saddened that another Marylander lost his life in yesterday’s horrific explosion in northwest Baltimore,” Hogan wrote. “We continue to pray for the families of the victims and for all those injured and displaced by this terrible tragedy.”

Schnella, Graham’s friend, described him as always smiling, and always the happy one among their group of friends at City College. Though school was often demanding, Schnella said Graham “was always the one that kept everyone uplifted, kept your spirits high.”

Schnella said Graham started a clothing company called Chase a Plate, and he regularly posted videos with his cousin to a YouTube channel by the same name. The channel has more than 7,000 subscribers.

Miazga recalled Graham as “a solid student” who worked hard and was very respectful.

Year later, Miazga said he still recalls when Graham had to memorize and perform a monologue from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and then discuss it before the class. Graham was nervous, Miazga recalled, but did very well.

When the spring baseball season rolled around, Miazga said he persuaded Graham to join the team as an outfielder. Graham hadn’t played much baseball but was a good athlete who was fast and had a knack for defense, Miazga said.

As in the classroom, Graham was diligent and respectful on the field, Miazga said. If he was going to be late to practice, Graham let his coach know beforehand.

Tashjian, his other English teacher, wrote in a letter of recommendation in 2018 for Graham about how he had blossomed as a student and a writer.

“Joseph is an extremely hardworking young man. He has persevered in more ways than one... His drive, his commitment and his dedication to academic success are awe-inspiring and need to be rewarded,” she wrote.

She said she knew from the start he was an attentive and engaged student, but quickly realized his writing abilities when the class studied local Baltimore authors, such as Tariq Toure. Tashjian recalled how impressed she was by a poem her student wrote.

“I was stunned by its honesty, its intensity, and its beautiful storytelling quality,” she wrote. “It was immediately clear that Joseph was a poet with a great deal of talent.”

Alex Freeman, Morgan’s Student Government Association president, wrote on Twitter Tuesday that Graham was a close friend, and that the two had attended high school together. They had been excited when they learned they would both be attending Morgan.

“God bless your fam cause the pain I feel can’t compare to theirs,” he wrote. “Love you bro Rest Easy Truly tired of losing childhood friends.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Wilborn P. Nobles III and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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