U.S. Army First Class Sgt. Gilbert Henderson was waiting at a Broadmoor salon for a barber to finish braiding his friend’s hair when he heard it.
“It sounds like somebody’s trying to drive a car through the door,” Henderson said he thought at the time.
Near the front door of the Unity 1 Beauty Supply & Hair Salon, he saw what he could only describe as “mangled up stuff.” Then, according to Henderson, the unrecognizable debris, which he later learned was a car that had crashed into the building, “blew up.”
“I felt the impact of the blast,” said Henderson, 44, who served four tours overseas, one in Bosnia and three in Iraq.
The explosion started a fire. He and others scrambled to find an exit on the first floor, he said, but found none.
“Everybody went upstairs,” said Henderson.
When the car crashed into the corner-facing building on Washington Avenue and South White Street, it set off a three-alarm blaze at the salon shortly after 8:30 p.m. March 20, resulting in three deaths, the New Orleans Fire Department said.
Henderson was among at least a half dozen people who escaped the building from the second floor.
New Orleans police said the car hit the salon after its driver evaded a traffic stop a few blocks away on Toledano Street. The car had been reported as stolen, police said that night. Both its occupants — two teenage boys identified as Byron Wilson Jr., 16, and Chimelu Collins, 14 — died.
A salon customer, identified as Schwann Herbert, 54, who had been pulled from a second-story window by firefighters, died the day after the crash and fire from fire-related injuries, Coroner Dwight McKenna’s office confirmed.
In addition to three lives, the fire and crash stripped the Broadmoor neighborhood of a business that neighbors said provided people with jobs, meals and a gathering place. Owner Beverly Smith said she and her husband owned and ran it for 38 years.
Six other people, including two NOPD officers, were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, the NOFD said. A firefighter was treated at the scene and returned to duty.
Accounts from Henderson and neighbors who helped people escape in the few minutes before the fire department arrived provide new details about how they got out in time, and the impact the events had on survivors and their rescuers.
Fitzgerald Johnson said he had pulled up his black pickup truck in front of his mother’s house on Eve Street, about a block away from the salon, when he heard “Bam!”
Maybe seconds later, he said, he heard screams from a woman he knew from the neighborhood. People were inside the building, she shouted, adding, “Children.”
Johnson, 54, used to do odd jobs at Unity 1. His mother is friends with owner Beverly Smith. He knew the Smiths had young grandchildren – twins – who were often at the shop., and he thought of the twins when he heard the neighbor screaming.
“I broke out running,” Johnson said.
About halfway to the salon, he spun around and doubled back to his truck to get a ladder, said Henderson, a carpenter for J&K Cabinetry. He knew where the Smiths kept their ladder, too, so he grabbed that one from the side of their building.
His friend Woody Lott came from a different direction.
Lott first heard the sound of a car. Then he saw one speed down the street, followed by police vehicles.
Lott, 47, was near Toledano and Rocheblave streets at the time, and said he thought the fleeing car was traveling too fast to be able to stop at the stop sign at Toledano and Dorgenois streets, about two blocks from where the crash occurred.
Then he heard the crash.
“We knew right away – tragedy,” he said. “The fire came so fast, spread quickly.”
NOPD’s Public Integrity Unit has opened an internal investigation into a possible violation of the department’s vehicle pursuit policy. The policy authorizes car chases only if the fleeing person is suspected of a violent felony, which preliminary information so far suggests does not appear to have been the case.
NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said Friday (April 12) he decided to reassign the involved officers to desk duty, pending the investigation, after reviewing video evidence.
Lott said he ran to the salon to see if anyone was inside.
Johnson was already there, with a ladder set up. Lott threw a brick through the window upstairs to break it. He saw his friend, Johnson, on the ladder, trying to break the window with a stick.
Lott said he started spraying the burning building with a garden hose attached to the salon.
Henderson said he and the others trapped inside quickly settled on a second-story bathroom window as their escape route, after realizing a storage room exit wouldn’t work.
The calmness of the people inside the burning building struck him, he said. “Except for the kids,” he added. The two children inside were not the owner’s grandchildren, but a brother and sister at the salon with their mother.
Another man inside, a barber identified by Henderson and Johnson as Alvin Santana, shut and held closed the bathroom door, preventing the black smoke from reaching the group, Henderson said.
Henderson said someone hoisted a ladder against the building, reaching the window. Henderson said he helped push a man, a woman, and the two children through the window. The boy, he recalled, was yelling. Henderson said he lifted the boy by his shoulders and “stuffed him out there.” NOPD police officers had arrived and helped receive the boy on the ladder, Henderson said.
Johnson said the police encouraged him and Lott to back away, likely to avoid harming themselves and to restore order.
“That’s a human in there,” Jenson said he told them.
“Ain’t nobody getting back,” Lott said he thought at the time. “That’s our people.”
Johnson went back up the ladder, took off one of the two shirts he was wearing and wrapped it around his nose and mouth. At that point, one of the officers joined him on the ladders to help those trying to get out.
Johnson said his girlfriend yelled at him from the ground, reminding him he has asthma, but he didn’t feel he had a choice.
He’s been asked over and over how he felt when he sprang into action, Johnson said, but feeling scared or nervous never crossed his mind.
“I couldn’t just stand there and watch them people burn up or suffocate,” he said.
Henderson said he believed he was the last to get out the window. He estimated it took only about three to four minutes from when he first heard the crash. NOFD said the department received the call for help at 8:39 p.m., were dispatched at 8:41 p.m., and arrived seven minutes later.
Henderson learned once he reached the ground that a group of neighbors had placed the ladder under the window.
“They did a great job by getting that to us,” he said of the neighbors. “A lot of people moving real fast.”
Speaking weeks after the fire, both Henderson and Johnson lamented the customer’s death. They did not know her name at the time, but wanted to and were unable to take her from the building themselves.
Just before he escaped himself, Henderson said, unable to see well, he reached down toward where he believed a woman had been left behind.
“Black smoke rolled, I felt the heat go down my lungs,” Henderson said of that moment.
He couldn’t get to her.
“What hurts me the most is I tried to save everyone. I couldn’t save her,” Henderson said.
Johnson said once on the ground, he was told a woman remained inside.
“I couldn’t get in there, the smoke blinded me,” Johnson said.
A South Carolina native who works at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse, Henderson said his Army career has desensitized him to trauma. But in the days following the fire, when his general told him what a great job he did, he thought of the woman he never met who died and broke down crying – his first tears in decades.
Herbert was described by her uncle at a March 23 vigil as “full of fun” and by a cousin as “always happy.” She had been going to the salon for more than 20 years, family members said.
Johnson’s mother told him how proud she was of him, he said, and people have shaken his hand since that day, calling him “a hero and this and that.” Days after the fire, he ran into Santana. They hugged and the barber thanked him.
“But myself, overall I’ve basically been distant,” Johnson said, explaining he still thinks about what more he could have done to “save the lady’s life.”
Ferguson said he has reached out to the families of Collins, Wilson and Herbert. Some relatives were not ready to speak with him, but he said he told Collins’ mother that if NOPD played a role in the events that led to the crash, “we’ll accept this… and acknowledge to her what wrongdoing we may have done.”
The support the Broadmoor community has shown the owners of the Unity 1 Beauty Supply & Hair Salon has helped Beverly Smith get out of bed in the morning, she said. A Gofundme page has received donations to help them rebuild, and fundraisers have been held: One is 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Propeller Business Incubator, 4035 Washington Ave. Herbert’s son, Anthony, also a longtime customer, plans to be there, Smith said.
Outside the remains of the business last week stood a hand-painted sign reading, “BARBER ON DUTY.” Last week, Smith said, Santana started cutting hair next door to the charred remains of the building he and the others escaped weeks earlier.