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Women who lost four men in St. Petersburg crash share their tale of tragedy

ORLANDO

The widows filtered out of the house on the quiet cul-de-sac, and huddled under a shade tree. Their husbands and boyfriend were dead, killed Sunday by a suspected drunken driver in St. Petersburg. Most people want to hide after that kind of horror. But this family wanted to share. They showed rawness to cameras, to people with notebooks. They wanted the world to know the void created in one tragic moment. They read off typed pages and gripped photos. Their bodies shook to the point of collapse. They said they were trying to forgive, not to hate.

Elroy McConnell, 51, was gone. So were his sons: Elroy III, 28, Nathan, 24, and Kelly, 19. Police say a drunken 20-year-old ran a red light and crashed into their Ford Fusion, killing them instantly.

Flanked by more than a dozen family members and friends, the widows talked about drunken driving.

"This could have been any of you," said Sandie McConnell, wife of Elroy III. "Your spouse, your child … I hope and pray that the next time that you go to drink and drive you stop and think about this tragedy."

• • •

Sandie woke up alone.

It was after 4 a.m. Sunday. A light was coming from under the door.

She walked into the living room of the vacation house the entire family had rented on Redington Beach. They were celebrating. Sandie and Elroy III had brought their new baby on his first vacation with the family. It was Kelly's 19th birthday and Nathan's fourth wedding anniversary.

Elroy — "Big Roy" to the family — and his sons had talked for weeks about seeing the movie Predators together. Late Saturday night, they decided to go.

When she saw the light under the door, Sandie let out a puff of exasperation. She thought they were back, and had stayed up all night playing a new football game on Xbox.

But Kelly's air mattress was empty, and the other wives were awake and confused.

They calmed themselves with theories.

Maybe they were carjacked, and they were walking home. That's why it took so long.

They started calling hospitals. Then the police station.

They were sitting on the couch together when the morning news came on.

The newscaster talked of a fatal car wreck. They saw images of a mangled black car.

Even then, they tried to imagine anything else.

They Googled black cars, comparing other models to the one on television to prove it might not be a Ford Fusion.

"We didn't want to believe," said Sandie, 26.

Then police came to the door.

• • •

Funeral plans were barely arranged Tuesday, but the family offered partial eulogies. It was the only chance to make sure the world understood the men, they said.

"The best part about my guys is they were really, really great guys," said Elroy's wife, Amy Voelker. "And everyone who met them knew they were really, really great guys."

Her husband was an accountant and Ironman athlete who studied his Bible every day and helped friends out of financial peril with biblical principles.

He tithed his church faithfully. He helped form a new football league for kids in eastern Orlando. He ran every morning. He didn't drink alcohol, hated cigarettes.

"Everybody has had a drink and drove a car," said his sister, Deb McConnell. "There's one person I know without a doubt who never took a drink and never got high and drove a car, and that's my brother Roy."

Youngest son Kelly was a whiz who could rattle off names of NFL teams by age 3 — except he called the Green Bay Packers the "Quackers." At age 8, inspired by his father, he gave $2 of his allowance to different charities every other week.

He once took a homeless man to dinner on Thanksgiving. He was on track to graduate from the University of Miami in three years. He and his girlfriend planned to give away 10 percent of their salaries to the needy after college.

"He was so mature for his age," said his girlfriend, Celine Parietti, 19. "He wasn't like other 19-year-olds."

Middle child Nathan was responsible and mature after getting through some challenging teenage years, his wife said. He worked as an electrician and had been studying for his journeyman's license.

The couple, high school sweethearts, had a 2-year-old daughter, Kayla. Every morning, she asks for her dad.

"She was the big joy in our lives," said Anaiis McConnell, 24.

They had just celebrated their fourth anniversary.

"We didn't do anything special because we knew we had this special family trip," Anaiis said.

The oldest son, Elroy III, was 100 pounds through high school, but piled on big pads to play defensive end on the football team. He once carried his mother, Lisa Raybern, across a puddle so her feet would stay dry.

He moved to Louisiana for college and met his wife. They spent four months apart while he trained to be a manager at JCPenney so he could provide.

He wanted his son to hold the family name, but his wife didn't. They made a deal — if it was a boy, he won. If not, the name was out forever.

Four months ago, Elroy IV was born.

"Praise God I named him the fourth," Sandie said.

• • •

After the news conference, the family breathed and hugged.

Family cousin Rebecca Watson, a former chairwoman of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Georgia, talked about how she witnessed a drunken driving accident in the 1990s. She stopped to help, and the driver, who had a case of beer under her seat, died in her arms.

"In MADD, all of this tragedy is constantly happening around you," she said. "But when it happens to you … "

The wives stood around the tree and looked at photos. Three photos leaning against the bark were taken at the beach rental the night of the crash.

"Those were the clothes they had on when they died," Sandie said. She clutched her husband's Philadelphia Eagles hat.

The family gathered the pictures. News cameras slowly filed out of the neighborhood. Neighbors went back inside their houses and shut the doors.

The street fell silent.

Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Women who lost four men in St. Petersburg crash share their tale of tragedy 08/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 12:29am]

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