The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ellicott City ‘hero’ urged friends to honor Memorial Day — then died trying to save a stranger

The body of National Guard Sgt. Eddison Alexander Hermond was found Tuesday. He was swept away trying to save Kate Bowman from massive flooding in Ellicott City, Md.
The body of National Guard Sgt. Eddison Alexander Hermond was found Tuesday. He was swept away trying to save Kate Bowman from massive flooding in Ellicott City, Md. (AP)

As Memorial Day approached, Sgt. Eddison Alexander Hermond took to Facebook to urge his friends to be kind to one another in honor of the holiday.

“Okay kiddos, it’s Friday and the start of Memorial Day weekend,” the 39-year-old wrote early that morning. “Let’s get the hate out of our hearts. Focus on the positives and let’s all, for once, enjoy life as it’s meant to be enjoyed.”

“We’re free because people gave their lives for us to live this way,” wrote the Air Force veteran and Maryland Army National Guard member. “So . . . . stop being mad for one single weekend. PLEASE.”

On Sunday, Hermond was heeding his own advice, drinking with his friends at a restaurant in downtown Ellicott City when a rainstorm outside morphed into a relentless downpour, then a torrential flood.

As powerful waters ripped through the historic Maryland mill town, inundating stores, upending cars and destroying a 180-year-old stone cottage, Hermond spotted a woman outside who was caught in the rising currents.

He ran toward her, pausing at the edge of an overflowing creek. He gestured at her to hold on.

On the other side, Kate Bowman couldn’t hear his words over the roar of the flood, but she saw him take a step toward her.

Then he was gone.

'Completely heartbroken'

On Tuesday, he was finally found.

After two days of drones and cadaver dogs and search parties, after false reports and false hope, rescue workers pulled Hermond’s body from the Patapsco River.

News of his death stunned his family and many friends.

“With all the people they had searching out there, we just didn’t believe he’d be found dead,” said his aunt Nina Cooper, who lives in Brooklyn. “We all had our hopes. But after we went down into the woods looking for him, it started to sink in.”

“I’m completely heartbroken now, just like so many others who loved Eddie so much,” said Jennifer Mead, who served in the Air Force with Hermond and had known him for 15 years.

‘Washed away real quick’: Missing Md. man was trying to help woman trapped by flood

Hermond, who had a 13-year-old son, grew up in San Diego and joined the Air Force out of high school in 1996. He served for 10 years, including as a cryptologist, and then joined the National Guard in 2009.

Throughout life, most people called him Eddie, but he secretly hated that, Mead said.

“He wanted everyone to call him Eddison, but by the time he told all of us that, it was way too late,” she said. Some friends had another name for the strapping, 6-foot airman.

“People called him Superman,” she said.

While in the Guard, Hermond made a living as a waiter and bartender, first at the Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, Md., and more recently at the Manor Hill Tavern in Ellicott City.

“He said his life’s mission was to make everyone else’s life better,” recalled Anna Cisternino, a friend who often drank with Hermond. He was an easygoing bartender who loved Jameson Irish whiskey but only served himself from the bottom shelf, she said. Only rarely did he mention his time in the Air Force, recounting the time he got lost in South Korea.

“He said he’d been through so much crazy stuff,” she said. “But he joked his death would likely be caused by something like slipping on a banana peel.”

Hermond, who lived in Severn, Md., had recently left bartending to work in human resources, Cisternino said. A selfie he posted to Facebook shows him smiling in an office.

“He just felt like it was time for a change after almost ten years of bartending,” she said. “I feel like he was done doing insane dangerous stuff. It was like, ‘I’m an adult now. This is how we’re handling things now.’ ”

Cooper said her nephew was looking forward to a quiet life after his National Guard service ended. She hadn’t seen him in 20 years, but just happened to catch up with him on Saturday at a family event in Southern Maryland.

As their time together wound down, Hermond’s mother and aunts reminded him of a family reunion in August.

“He assured us that he was going to be there,” Cooper said.

'Absolutely terrifying'

On Sunday afternoon, Hermond headed to La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Ellicott City, where the owner was celebrating his birthday. As he and a group of friends celebrated inside the restaurant, just off Main Street, the waters outside began to rise.

Just yards away, across the steep, stone-lined banks of Tiber Creek, Kate Bowman was inside her boutique pet store, Clipper’s Canine Cafe.

The 41-year-old had moved her store to Ellicott City about a year earlier. She knew about the 1,000-year flood that had killed two people in 2016, she said, “but I never thought it would happen [again] two years later.”

When the storm started to pick up, and the Tiber began to bubble and foam just outside her shop window, her boyfriend went out to buy sandbags. Bowman called her mom, the store’s co-owner.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the Tiber began rising above her shop windows. Her boyfriend was trapped by the rising waters and couldn’t get back to the store.

“It was like ocean waves were just splashing against my doors,” she said. “It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying.”

Within a few minutes, the water had risen so high that she couldn’t open her door. She put her cat into a carrier, climbed a table and escaped out a first-story window.

She landed in waist-high water, struggling to hold onto the building as the waters buffeted her.

“I was floating all over the place,” she said. Bowman, who had stowed her glasses to keep from losing them, could barely see.

“It was like someone was pouring buckets on my head,” she said. “It was just ridiculous. It was like nothing I’ve experienced in my life.”

On the other side of the creek — transformed by the flood into a powerful river — she saw a group of people standing outside La Palapa.

One of them was a man she would later learn was Hermond.

He put his hands up and shouted something to her.

“He was telling me to stay,” she said. “He was trying to keep me calm.”

Hermond took a step toward her.

“He just stepped over the ledge, and he was immediately washed away,” she said, choking back tears.

Fueled by hours of torrential rains, the waters — reportedly as high as 15 feet — were so powerful that they felled a 150-year-old tree, collapsed a major road and crumpled three cars underneath a small bridge over the Tiber.

Crews rescuing people as torrential floods hit Ellicott City

It was near that bridge that Bowman watched Hermond vanish.

She was able to wend her way to higher ground with her cat, where she was helped by a group from a local wedding. Eventually, she made her way to La Palapa, where she told Hermond’s friends what had happened.

That evening, Cooper turned on her television and was shocked to see that her nephew was now missing in the flash flood. She called his mother, who was driving to her home in North Carolina.

“She lost it,” Cooper said.

Hermond’s mother turned around and headed back to Maryland. She, Cooper and two other sisters spent Monday night searching the woods around Ellicott City for signs of Hermond until a police officer found them at around 10 p.m. and assured them that authorities were thoroughly canvassing the area.

On Monday, friends gathered at the Victoria Gastro Pub to share stories about Hermond and their hopes that he had survived.

That afternoon, several of Hermond’s friends had just left a church near Ellicott City when the pastor texted to say that Hermond had been found alive.

“I was ecstatic,” recalled Kenneth Josepha, a longtime friend of Hermond’s. “I was shocked. Adrenaline was pumping.”

He returned to the church and then headed to the police staging area. But an officer told Josepha that Hermond was not there. So the group headed to the Howard County government building, where a public information officer told them that Hermond had not been found — it was someone else, a homeless man.

“We were all devastated and angry that they could confuse them,” Josepha said.

Bowman also heard that the “hero” who had tried to save her had, himself, been saved.

“I was just crying tears of joy, I was so happy,” she said. “Then they said, ‘No, I’m sorry, it was a false report.’ ”

Almost as painful were the reports by police and others that Hermond had been swept away while helping Bowman save her cat.

“If he passed, I want people to know he passed trying to save a person, not a cat,” Bowman said in an interview Monday. “He was trying to save me. I want his family to know that.”

Thousands of friends, family members and strangers shared Hermond’s photo on Facebook, hoping it would aid the search.

On Monday night, friends again gathered at the Victoria, where they set a shot of Jameson on the counter for him.

“Eddie’s,” they wrote on a napkin. “Do not touch.”

He would never claim it.

Early Tuesday afternoon, Howard County police announced that a body had been found in the Patapsco River about one mile below the Main Street bridge. An hour later, they confirmed its identity.

A proud veteran had died on Memorial Day weekend. As rescuers — some of them fellow Guardsmen — removed Hermond from the river, his body was draped in an American flag.

Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.

Read more:

‘Beyond rescue’: Ellicott City’s bizarre, rainless flood and its deadly 20-foot wall of water

‘Do you return?’ After another 1,000-year flood, Ellicott City’s shop owners need our help.

The second 1,000-year rainstorm in two years engulfed Ellicott City. Here’s how it happened.