ST. PETERSBURG — The women's family sat on the porch and in lawn chairs, saying little as they offered quiet embraces to the stream of somber new arrivals. A half-dozen children darted around the fenced-in yard and tossed a rainbow-colored beach ball. Beneath the still-sticky shade of palm and oak, mourners gathered to share pictures and tell stories and to laugh and curse and question.
Even on a summer day devoid of such grief, even if the women were still alive, the scene on 23rd Avenue S might have looked just as it did on Thursday afternoon, because the Campbells never stayed apart for long.
Around 3 that morning, two of their members — cousins Briana Lequinda Campbell, 23, of Gulfport, and Jamesia Chera Santoria, 21, of St. Petersburg — had died after a Chrysler speeding south in the northbound lanes of 16th Street struck their Saturn, which then burst into flames. The women's aunt, Grace LaShawn Collier, 25, was found about 15 feet from the burning car. Emergency responders airlifted her to Tampa General Hospital with internal injuries and severe burns to her lower body. She underwent surgery early Thursday and was listed in critical condition.
The women — who were all young, single mothers — were turning into a parking lot near Ninth Avenue when the crash occurred, police said. Investigators found the Chrysler empty, its driver- and passenger-side air bags deployed.
The driver fled and had not been found as of late Thursday night. Police said the Chrysler's owner, a woman, was cooperating with investigators and had provided them with information about the last person to drive her car.
Investigators believe its occupants may have just left Club 1 South, a bar that, on its Facebook page, advertised Wednesday as "The People's Party," with free admission until 1 a.m. and double drink specials.
The women, their family said, had also gone to the club as part of a girl's night out.
The trio grew up together and seldom spent time apart.
"Every time you saw one," said cousin Sade Campbell, "you saw all three."
Together, they shopped, beached, swam, partied, danced and fought. They told jokes often and laughed easily. Strangers thought the women were sisters.
Campbell and Collier were most alike. They spoke with their hands up and their voices loud, usually at the party's center. Santoria was more quiet, unless she had reason to be otherwise.
The Campbell family, dozens of them, had gathered last at a cookout two weeks ago. They teased Campbell because her shorts were tight, Santoria because she danced too hard and Collier because, in her pink shirt and matching skirt, she insisted on being the best dressed.
Feelings seldom turned hard, though. The family always teased those they loved.
They had all planned to gather again July 3 at Hollywood Nights South in St. Petersburg, for Campbell's 24th birthday.
Campbell had talked about it every day in recent weeks, asking family to help her find a purse to match her new six-inch, red-and-gold high-heels that, on Thursday, remained inside a shoebox at her home. She had looked forward to how tall they would make her look.
The women shared a passion for fun but what bonded them most were their children.
Collier's sons are 2 and 6.
Santoria's son is 5.
Campbell's youngest son is 1, and her twins, a boy and girl, are 3.
They all worked long hours to support their kids, Campbell as a dietary aide at a nursing home, Collier as a hairdresser and Santoria at J. C. Penney and Wendy's.
Group trips to swimming pools, parks, beaches and Chuck E. Cheese's were weekly activities.
As Thursday afternoon waned, Sade Campbell considered the inevitable as she watched the kids playing in the yard.
"How do you tell the children," she said, "that their mothers are dead?"
Standing in the picket fence's open doorway, Campbell's oldest son, who didn't know why his mother wasn't with him, held the rainbow beach ball in his arms and stared at the strangers with TV cameras talking to his family.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]