Father's Day plans interrupted by tragedy for Erica Herbert, 24 She dies with boyfriend, Daniel Phillips, on crash on trip home to Baltimore

June 21, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

The trip to Baltimore was to be a surprise for both families: Daniel Phillips planned to celebrate his mother's birthday while Erica Herbert looked forward to spending Father's Day with her dad.

Arrangements had been made far in advance, and the only pieces needed to complete the surprises were the arrivals of Mr. Phillips and Ms. Herbert, who had recently become engaged. They loaded their car in Atlanta early June 14 and headed north.

But the trip ended tragically several hours later in the small town of Henderson, N.C., when Mr. Phillips apparently fell asleep at the wheel, veered off the road and down an embankment, and struck a tree. Mr. Phillips, 28, and Ms. Herbert, 24, died.

"When people say 'Happy Father's Day,' I really don't want to hear it," said Aaron Herbert, Erica's father. "This was not a Father's Day for me."

For Mr. Herbert, her death not only means the loss of his only daughter and oldest child, but the loss of his best friend and closest confidante -- someone with whom he shared secrets and who whipped him handily in one-on-one basketball games.

This week, he painfully sifted through dozens of basketball and volleyball trophies, plaques, citations and news articles in the living room of his Randallstown home -- awards his daughter amassed over the years as a standout athlete at Western High School and Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

"She raised me as much as I raised her," said Mr. Herbert, who also has two young sons. "I love all of my children, but the relationship with her was special."

Ms. Herbert -- a point guard called "Super Herb" by her teammates -- was a Baltimore Sun All-Metro selection and Prep Athlete of the Week in 1989 for her basketball skills. She won a full scholarship to Mount St. Mary's, where she graduated in 1993 with degrees in economics and business finance.

Mr. Phillips, who lived in Northeast Baltimore, was a 1986 graduate of Northern High School who joined the Coast Guard for two years. He attended Morgan State University before going to Atlanta to "find his niche," said Sandra Bailey, his mother.

The couple had dated for about two years and planned to marry within a year, Mr. Herbert said. Mr. Phillips had been in Atlanta for several months; Ms. Herbert had been there for three weeks. They were good for each other, family and friends said, but each always emphasized the importance of their families.

"He was my rock, he kept things steady," Ms. Bailey said. "He went there for a couple of months and got homesick. But he would never dread somewhere new because it was a challenge, and he liked that."

Mr. Phillips worked several jobs while in Baltimore, but wanted to enter the medical or collection fields and thought the opportunities were better in Atlanta, relatives said.

"He wasn't down there long -- in fact, he hadn't even unpacked," said Sherrie Phillips, his sister. "He was still looking around down there."

Ms. Herbert, a social worker with the Maryland Department of Human Resources, went to Atlanta to be with Mr. Phillips and look for a job.

It was a hard, sad goodbye when her car pulled away from home last month. If there was a saving grace to her leaving, Mr. Herbert said, it was knowing she was going to be with Mr. Phillips because "he loved her almost as much as I did."

"The only thing harder than the accident was her leaving home to go to Atlanta," Mr. Herbert said. "She had never gone that far for good before. She had been recruited by Penn State University [to play basketball] but that wasn't for me or her. St. Mary's was 50 minutes from my door and I liked that."

"Friends always tell me that she's 24, and that you've got to let her go sometime," he said. "But I've never seen it written anywhere that you've got to go that way."

Breezy Bishop, Ms. Herbert's coach at Western High, said Ms. Herbert would occasionally return to the school and chat with the student-athletes.

"If I were giving her eulogy," Ms. Bishop said, "I'd say, 'Erica, you've got one more game and that's with God -- and you won't sit on the bench.' "

Services for Ms. Herbert were held yesterday at Sharon Baptist Church. Mr. Phillips was buried Wednesday.

Pub date: 06/21/96

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