I-10 crash victim was a popular New Orleans barber
Mitchell Baptiste, 48, who died in a fiery hit-and-run crash Friday on the Pontchartrain Expressway, was on his way to pick up his brother at Louis Armstrong International Airport so the two could attend their mother's funeral Saturday.
Baptiste was a popular barber who in recent years had operated out of Danny's Divine Designs on South Broad Street near Cleveland Avenue. He always had more than enough paying customers to keep him busy, but he was big-hearted and would cut customers' hair for free when money was tight, friends said.
On Saturday morning, Darnell Prejean arrived at the visitation for Baptiste's mother, Brina Mae White Bond, only to hear that his friend had been killed Friday. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he tried to come to grips with the news. "I can't believe it," he said. "Mitch just cut my hair at 3 o'clock Thursday afternoon."
Because of his skills, kindness and wit, Baptiste kept customers forever, friends said. He had cut Prejean's hair since the 42-year-old was a college student. He was the only barber Richard George, 46, has ever had.
"He spoiled all of his customers: They didn't want to go nowhere but him," said Frank Clark, 60, who employed Baptiste for 15 years at Candy's Beauty and Barber Shop on South Broad.
"Every customer was special to him. Love just flowed from him through the clippers," said Errol Duvernay, 51, a friend and customer for nearly 25 years.
About 10:45 a.m. on Friday, Baptiste's Nissan was hit from the rear on the expressway by a driver in a black Nissan. The collision, which occurred near City Park Avenue, spun Baptiste's car into a concrete barrier and a light pole. Passers-by tried to break inside his locked car and pull him out, but it burst into flames with him trapped inside, burning his body beyond recognition.
The black Nissan that caused the wreck didn't stop. Interstate 10 was closed in both directions for hours while crews worked to clear the scene.
Word spread among some of Baptiste's friends and longtime customers Friday. Others, like Prejean, heard the news as they arrived Saturday at St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in eastern New Orleans, thinking they had come to help Baptiste bury his mother.
Baptiste, though a dapper dresser, had never owned a suit until this past week, when he bought one for his mother's funeral. The new suit had been a main topic of the week's conversation, said Prejean and Duvernay.
"Get a camera," he had told friends he knew would be at his mother's send-off. Duvernay was slated to sing a solo. And Baptiste had called George at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, asking him to be a pallbearer.
The two had spoken only briefly, just long enough to nail down the arrangements, said George, who lives on Broad near Baptiste's home. He saw his friend every morning as Baptiste walked his dog and put his young niece on the school bus, George said.
Bond's death wasn't unexpected, funeral-goers said. She had been sick, and doctors told her she likely would not survive surgery. So she called together the family to say goodbye, made out her will and planned her entire funeral -- down to the outfit she'd wear in her coffin.
"It was all planned," Duvernay said. "And then this happened."
George said the scene from the highway kept playing through his mind, first the crash and then the awful fire.
The friends wondered about the hit-and-run driver, who was going fast enough to push Baptiste's car into the light pole with such force it ignited. And who was the driver, they wondered, speculating that maybe he was young and scared, drunk, or driving a stolen car.
"It seems so cold that he kept going," George said.
Duvernay said that after the family's "double dose" of sorrow, everyone hoped for some closure.
"Whoever you are," Duvernay pleaded, "just do the right thing and come forward."
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3396.
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