A friend says she didn’t realize Johnny R. Knight Jr. had any fireworks with him until he was fatally injured Sunday in the backyard of her north Omaha home.

“It was a really hot day, and Johnny had just stepped outside to have a cigarette,” Jacqueline Winston said Tuesday. “We didn’t know that he had any fireworks at all. There was this loud explosion and when we went outside, he was facedown.”

Winston said there was blood on Knight’s face and his fists were clenched, but she couldn’t tell where he was injured. When he was rolled over, a gaping chest wound was visible.

Knight, who lived in the Benson neighborhood, had come over to Winston’s house near 42nd Street and Ames Avenue to hang out. Winston said she had been getting her kids ready to go to Chuck E. Cheese for dinner, and Knight agreed to go along to help with the kids.

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“I blame myself for not getting the kids ready quicker because then this never would’ve happened,” she said. “All we could really do was call 911, get some towels and start praying.”

Knight, 28, was injured when a fireworks artillery shell exploded, police said. He suffered critical injuries to his chest and was taken to the Nebraska Medical Center, where he died.

Police reported that Knight mishandled the device, which was legally purchased in Omaha. Neighbors said they heard a loud explosion and then saw people placing towels on the man’s chest shortly after 5:30 p.m.

A fund to help Knight’s family with funeral expenses has been set up through Cobalt Credit Union. Donations can be made through any of the branch locations with checks made out to “Memorial Fund of Johnny R. Knight.”

“This is a really good family, but they don’t have a lot of money and need help,” Winston said. “Johnny wanted to be cremated.”

Knight visited Winston’s home three or four times a week to cut the lawn or pick up trash that had accumulated from the nearby alley. The 41-year-old Winston, who described herself as a sister or mother to Knight, would cook meals and sometimes pay him for odd jobs.

“Johnny was a great lawn care worker. He kept my yard well-manicured,” she said. “He cut a lot of people’s yards to make some extra money for himself. That was something he was very good at.”

Dusty Knight, 24, said his older brother “could be stubborn as a mule.” Still, he said, Johnny had a good heart.

“If I needed something or help with something, he was the first one to be there,” Dusty said. “He always had my back since we were little.”

Johnny followed the Pittsburgh Steelers and served as a water boy for the Omaha Outlaws, a semipro football team that played its home games at South High’s Collins Field, Winston said. He never missed a game.

“I’m completely lost without him,” she said. “Every time I walk outside, I’m reliving the ordeal. Nobody can believe this happened.”

Kevin Cole covers Omaha crime and public safety news. Follow him on Twitter @KevinColeOmaha. Phone: 402-444-1272.

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