A Florida pastor and his congregation are now wrapped in heartache after his three daughters were killed in a car crash that left five people dead and a young boy fighting for his life as they returned home from a church convention Sunday.
Tehira, 18, was designing her own clothing line, while India, 24, was about to sign with a record label, and 29-year-old La’Mour was going back to school to become a registered nurse.
Instead, their grieving father stood outside his church Monday morning clinging to his faith and trying to understand how they could be gone so quickly — victims of a collision on a rain-slick rural road that killed five people.
“It hurts my heart today to see that I have lost three of my daughters at one time,” said the Rev. Ricardo Welch, pastor at Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ in south St. Petersburg. “But even in all of this tragedy I still trust that God is God and his strength is what holds me up.”
As the sisters were driving home from a church conference in Fort Pierce on Sunday evening, a pickup hit their car along State Road 70 east of Arcadia, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
Also killed in the crash was Antwayne Robinson, 25, of Garner, N.C., a passenger in the Welch car and a singing partner, as well as the driver of the pickup, 30-year-old Jennifer Zuniga of Venus in Highlands County. Zuniga’s son, 6-year-old Cort Thivierge, was a passenger in the truck and was undergoing treatment at Tampa General Hospital.
The Welch sisters, renowned church singers, had attended the Florida Eastern Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Holy Convocation, held during the weekend at the East Florida Primitive Baptist Temple in Fort Pierce.
Speaking to reporters at the church Monday, the Rev. Welch said his daughters were excited at the prospect of putting to work what they had learned at the convocation once they returned to their church and community.
Now, the family is leaning on faith while they grieve over the deaths, he said.
“I look at it as a season in which God allowed his hand to work, and he called my babies home,” Welch said.
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Welch, who has worked as a utility linesman and with Pinellas schools as a groundskeeper, took over leadership of the Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ in 2013 after the death of his father, the Rev. Clarence Welch.
Welch described his daughters as accomplished in the diverse interests they pursued. Each, like him, had a love of music, but India took it to a different level. She was in the process of signing with a record label and planning a gospel concert for January.
A cousin, Daja Davis, said India’s singing would melt your heart.
Tehira Welch was hearing impaired, her father said, but at 17, she was a budding seamstress who had started her own clothing company and sold her designs online. She had just launched a new line before her death.
A friend of Tehira’s from Gibbs High School, Rajae White, said because of her impairment, said Tehira never had trouble expressing herself.
“She didn’t say much, but she said a lot without saying so,” said Rajae White. “You could just look at her and know what she was thinking and what she would say.”
Tehira was about to start her senior year at Gibbs High School, where she was a cheerleader. White said she had been trying to decide where to go to college after she graduated.
La’Mour Welch was planning to go back to school and get her registered nursing license, her father said. She was putting together a back-to-school fair for neighborhood children later this month where she would give out backpacks.
Her father fondly described Lamour as his twin because the two looked so similar.
Ricardo and his wife, Darlene Butler-Welch, also have a son, James “Anthony” Corbett. The have five grandchildren. County Commissioner Ken Welch is a cousin and visited the church Monday morning.
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Bishop Willie J. Matheney of New Port Richey, who oversees the Western Jurisdiction of the Church of Christ in God, said the sisters and their friend Robinson were well respected musicians who performed in church choirs.
He said India Welch was a soloist who delivered a performance at the Western Jurisdiction’s convention in July.
The Welch family’s church is part of the Fort Lauderdale-based Eastern Convocation, the group of 114 churches that was gathering in Fort Pierce during the weekend.
“I know there is a musical history in their background,” Matheney said. “India Welch had a tremendous voice. She was a great soloist.”
He added, “My heart goes out to our friends in St. Petersburg.”
Little information was available Monday from acquaintances of Zuniga, driver of the pickup in Sunday’s fatal crash. Relatives declined comment on the medical condition of her son, and at his school, Lake Country Elementary in Lake Placid, officials limited comment to an email: “Our staff is devastated by the news,” said Principal Erica Ashley.
The highway patrol said Zuniga was headed east on State Road 70 driving a 2006 Ford F150 pickup truck when she lost control on a straightaway about three miles west of Southeast Highland County Line Road. The vehicle hydroplaned, rotating and crossing the center line. La’Mour Welch, driving west in a 2013 Volkswagen Passat, tried to avoid a collision by steering into the grass shoulder but the truck hit the back of the car.
Both vehicles came to rest facing west, straddling the shoulder and the westbound lane.
The crash is under investigation, the highway patrol said, but alcohol was not a factor.
Authorities closed the westbound lane of State Road 70 for almost seven hours before reopening it 2 a.m. Monday.
The drivers were not wearing seat belts, the highway patrol said, while the boy and Robinson were. No information was available about whether the other two Welch sisters wore seatbelts.
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It had been raining near the site of the crash, but it’s not clear whether it was coming down at the time, said highway patrol Lt. Greg S. Bueno.
“We will pull weather reports as part of investigation to determine if it was raining at the exact time,” Bueno said. “At this time … there were no known witnesses.”
Just over a half inch of rain fell near Arcadia on Sunday, according to weather reports.
Robinson had come down from his hometown in North Carolina to take part in the convocation, said his mother, Rosalee Robinson, in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. Her son worked as a musician in a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, she said.
“He loved music,” Rosalee Robinson said. “He also was a caring, giving, big Teddy bear who would give you the shirt off his back.
“He loved church,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “That’s why he was there in Florida. He was supposed to be coming home today.”
Antwayne Robinson has two sisters and a brother, his mother said, and he had taken a bus to St. Petersburg, where he met the Welch sisters and drove with them to the convocation. Antwayne posted a message on Facebook Aug. 4 asking God to watch over him in his travels to Florida.
“He loved church music, gospel and jazz,” Rosalee Robinson said. “His favorite song was, ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.’ ”
Rosalee Robinson said the Welch family is in her thoughts.
“I want to send my well wishes to the three in that car with him as well,” she said. “I’m wishing their family finds comfort.”
The Rev. Welch said a memorial service will be held, but it will be to celebrate the lives of this three daughters. Even though his heart hurts today, he said, he trusts God’s plan.
“I pray that you continue to lift up our families,” he said. “We aren’t saddened by what has happened, but we just submit to the will of God and accept what God allows.”
Contemporary Christian Lifestyle Magazine stands with the families of the victims at this tragic moment, praying the Lord will comfort and uphold them.
Credit: St. Petersburg Tribune.