Lonnie Herriott loved going out with friends and dancing to the “oldies but goodies,” but because of the coronavirus pandemic the group hadn’t met for months, said Herriott’s friend Towander “Nanny” Winder.
Though Winder had lost touch with Herriott recently, she quickly grew concerned when watching a local TV station’s news coverage of the deadly gas explosion in the Reisterstown Station neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore on Monday. She heard an interview with Leon Phillips, who lived in one of the three homes that had been leveled, and who said his roommate Jerome and his girlfriend Lonnie were missing.
Winder recognized the couple’s names and the location, and reached out to Herriott’s mother and sister, but neither had heard any news of Herriott. All day Monday, Winder said, she called local hospitals, giving her friend’s name, only to be turned down. She went to the 4200 block of Labyrinth Road where police officers had blocked off the street, and where firefighters continued to sift through the rubble in search of victims.
Earlier that morning, Leon Phillips, 64, had gotten up at 6 a.m. to go to work at Lenny’s Deli in Owings Mills. He recalled in an interview Thursday how he had smelled a faint odor of gas that morning but as he got ready for work, he said, he didn’t notice it, and he left for his shift without giving it much thought.
During his break at work, he said he got a call that there had been an explosion at his home.
Phillips said he quickly rushed to the two-story brick row home at 4232 Labyrinth that he rented with a longtime friend he identified as Jerome Jackson. He said that the two men had been friends since they were children and that Phillips moved into the rental about five years earlier. Jackson and his girlfriend Herriott often shared meals and other celebrations with Phillips, including his birthday in June.
“My heart went out for the ones I left there,” said Phillips, recalling arriving to find the wreckage where his home had been that morning.
He said he spent the day before with his family and grandchildren — a memory he cherished more after he realized he could have been killed himself in Monday’s explosion if he had not been scheduled to work.
“God kept me here for a reason,” he said.
When Winder arrived at the scene Monday, she said an officer told her that the victims had been taken to Sinai Hospital and the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Yet neither had a patient by that name, so she suggested to Herriott’s sister, Shirley Washington, whom she’d been talking with, that they try the medical examiner’s office after the news reported one fatality.
After that, she didn’t hear back from Washington and only learned of her friend’s death Wednesday when she saw Herriott’s name flash on her TV screen during a local news broadcast.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Winder, recalling she needed to take some time to collect herself.
The fire department confirmed Wednesday that Herriott, 61, had been found dead in the rubble just before noon Monday. Joseph Graham, a 20-year-old Morgan State University student, was found hours later, just before 1 a.m. Tuesday. Family members also said Graham did not live on the block, but had spent the night at a friend’s house when he was killed.
The department said seven others were rescued from the rubble.
Herriott’s mother, Phyllis Herriott, said she did not find out her daughter had died until Wednesday.
She said that she was close with her daughter and that the two talked on the phone every other day, but she had never been to her daughter’s boyfriend’s home.
When a friend of her daughter called to break the news, Phyllis Herriott said she found strength from her faith.
“The Lord keeps me stable,” she said.
Phyllis Herriott said her daughter grew up in Baltimore but struggled in school because of a learning disability caused by lead poisoning. She described her oldest daughter, however, as resilient and hardworking. She said Lonnie Herriott moved out at a young age but managed to support herself through various jobs. Recently, she had suffered from pain after an injury and hadn’t been working, her mother said.
Shirley Washington said the family is concerned about paying for a funeral. She said her sister relied on benefits and recently lost her job because of the pandemic.
Phyllis Herriott said her daughter was previously married and divorced, and she did not have children, but made friends everywhere she went.
“She loved people, and she would help anybody who needed help,” her mother said.
Phyllis Herriott said her daughter loved to buy clothes with the little money she had after paying the bills.
Herriott said she couldn’t remember exactly what their last conversation was about, but she said she is thankful her daughter knew she loved her.
“I always tell [my children] that I loved them,” she said.
Phillips said he got to know Herriott after she spent weekends at the house he shared with Jackson, and a third roommate.
He described Herriott as a “beautiful, nice lady.”
Phillips said that the third man had moved in during the past year, but that he did not know him well. He said he hasn’t talked to that roommate, but he has talked to Jackson on the phone from his hospital room.
“He was in good spirits,” Phillips said of Jackson.
With a laugh, he said his friend, who’s always talking about food, told him he was hungry.
Phillips said he’s continued to work to keep his mind off what happened. He’s been in touch with the Red Cross to help him get assistance; all of his belongings were destroyed in the blast.
He’s been able to stay with his fiancee, but he’s mostly upset about the family photos he lost, including pictures of his grandson, “a ballplayer,” he said.
Winder said the group of friends who went dancing with Herriott are planning to get together to celebrate their friend.
“She was a nice, sweet person,” Winder said. “She’s going to be truly missed.”