The setting sun pierced through the sunglasses of Jonathan Brice, his eyes watering as he described his nephew, 20-year-old Airman Makai Sean Cummings.

“He was a great kid, very competitive but also sensitive. He was someone that was doing great things and we expected even greater things,” he said. “We were so very proud that he chose to take his abilities and join the Air Force to help defend his country. We were just so proud, clearly — it’s not something that just anyone does.”

Cummings, a Baltimore native and City College graduate, was killed in the early morning hours of May 8 in a hit-and-run while he was changing his tire on the side of I-295 outside Richmond, Virginia. He was on his way back to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

On Monday night, Cummings’ casket was returned home on a Southwest flight from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Family members and friends gathered on the tarmac to greet him, watching as the taxiing plane wheeled through ceremonial sprays of water from two firetrucks as part of a dignified transfer ceremony. Military members lined the conveyor belt, which would lower his casket out of the cargo hold.

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Thomas Greul, a bagpipe player from the Blue Guard, performed “Amazing Grace” as Cummings’ American flag-draped casket was rolled out of the plane.

“Twenty years old in a hit-and-run, such a senseless one,” Greul said right before the ceremony. “There’s always a sense of pride in being able to show the airmen, or Marines, or Navy or whoever is coming home, to show them the respect that they deserve. You can’t play when you’re crying, but it’s one of those things that I feel like needs to be done, they deserve it. You just concentrate on your breathing and keep going.”

Members of Cummings’ family bent over to put their arms around his casket, tears rolling down their faces as the bagpipes played on. Many let out sobs, their knees buckling under the weight of their grief as they held each other.

Staff Sgt. Timothy Lemack watched the doors close on the hearse carrying his friend. He had escorted Cummings’ remains on the flight back to his family.

Lemack thought back to the day they first met.

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“He had a baby face,” he said.

The family and friends of Airman Makai Cummings, 20, gather on the tarmac at BWI to receive his casket from Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The family and friends of Airman Makai Cummings, 20, gather on the tarmac at BWI to receive his casket from Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Makai Cumming's mother, Tina Lacy, hugs his casket as it leaves the airplane.
Makai Cummings’ mother, Tina Lacy, hugs his casket on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The family and friends of Airman Makai Cummings hold each other as they view his casket leaving the plane on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The family and friends of Airman Makai Cummings, 20, gather on the tarmac at BWI to receive his casket from Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Thomas Greul plays the bagpipes as the casket of Airman Makai Cummings, 20, is transported from the plane into a hearse on May 15, 2023.
Thomas Greul plays the bagpipes as the casket of Airman Makai Cummings, 20, is transported from the plane into a hearse on May 15, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Only hours before the fatal collision, Cummings enjoyed a birthday dinner for his mother at Mr. Bill’s Terrace Inn on Eastern Boulevard in Essex. Brice said they all sat around a table to eat crabs and watch the NBA playoffs.

A proud alum of Baltimore City College, where he played lacrosse, Cummings loved reading and devoured books, especially those with a focus on African American literature and history, his uncle said.

“My wife, who was a former English teacher, purchased ‘Roots’ for him,” Brice said, referring to Alex Haley’s 1976 novel on an enslaved African man and his descendants. “You don’t see many high school students sitting down to read that one.”

Although Cummings was accepted into Morehouse College in Atlanta, he chose to join the Air Force.

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Brice said the family is leaning on its Pentecostal faith as relatives grieve, “and trusting that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Baltimore City Councilman Antonio Glover recently called for a moment of silence to honor Cummings during a council meeting, as he knows the family well. According to Glover, Cummings sent a text to a younger sibling after getting the flat tire in Virginia: “Bro, this is life. Just got a new vehicle, now I’m changing my first tire.”

Reporter Adam Willis contributed to this report.

kaitlin.newman@thebaltimorebanner.com

Kaitlin Newman is a photojournalist specializing in multimedia coverage. Her main areas of focus are politics, conflict, feature and breaking news. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from Towson University, which is where she is also the professor of photojournalism.

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