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Welch family finds support in time of sorrow after three sisters killed in car crash

ST. PETERSBURG — The sound of gospel music swells from the pews, up to the knotty pine rafters and through several walls into the pastor's office. There, sitting in a semicircle on mismatched chairs, members of the Welch family remember their three daughters.

Tehira, the youngest, a fashionista who could summon harmony from clashing patterns and colors. India, the middle child, a singer whose voice would fill a room, rhapsodic during a solo. La'Mour, the oldest, a caretaker always willing to watch a friend's children without payment.

In the days since they were killed in a car crash on their way home from a religious convention Sunday in Fort Pierce, churchgoers and community members have woven a complex support system around their family.

They have mopped and swept, cooked breakfast and delivered dinner. They have called so much that they filled the phone of pastor Ricardo Welch, the women's father, with 2,000 calls and text messages. They have prayed. They have cried. They have lit candles and held hands.

It is, the family believes, evidence of kindness returned, proof of unending faith lifting them through unknowable grief.

"When we give our love unconditionally, then love comes back to us bountifully," Ricardo Welch said. "And that is what has happened this week."

• • •

The Welches felt blessed Sunday afternoon.

India posted a video to Facebook of people clapping and singing gospel, filling a church to its limit during a regional church convocation.

The sisters started for home, excited to bring lessons from the weekend to their congregation at Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ.

About 7 p.m., a pickup hydroplaned on State Road 70, smashing the women's sedan along a rural stretch of De Soto County. The Welch daughters, along with Antwayne Robinson, 25, a friend from Garner, N.C., and Jennifer Zuniga, the driver of the truck, died. The only survivor was a 6-year-old boy in Zuniga's vehicle.

• • •

From a young age, La'Mour Welch exhibited a precociousness that sometimes brought her trouble but more often drew praise.

"In middle school, I guess she thought I was rich or something, because she would come home, she would say, 'Mom, my friend's mother won't buy her a dress for the dance. So can you just get me a less expensive dress and get her one too?' " remembered Lillie Welch, La'Mour's mother.

When she was a little older, La'Mour sneaked out one night to bring school supplies to a friend working on a project due the next day. Lillie was not pleased.

La'Mour must have been about 7, her older brother James Anthony Corbett said, when his then-girlfriend (now wife) was babysitting and they decided to make fried chicken. La'Mour volunteered to cook.

"Something went wrong and they almost set the house on fire," Corbett, 35, said. "But that just showed that she had this spirit about her, that you just felt like she could do so much."

La'Mour, 29, had one daughter, Janiyah, 9, and 7-year-old boys, Jemil and Jaiel. "She had a huge capacity for love," Corbett said.

That benevolence, it seems, was inherited.

Generations of Welches have lived in St. Petersburg. Sharon, Ricardo's sister, is a city employee in information technology. Ken, a cousin, is a county commissioner. Their parents and grandparents were spiritual people who followed God and laid a foundation built upon not only the church, but helping others.

The calls of support and prayers have come from aunts and distant in-laws and people in the Prayer Tower flock, but also from strangers across Pinellas.

"It's a secretary. It's someone who heard it on the news and knows the family name," said Cody Clark, a cousin and India's gospel choir director at Gibbs High School.

"People are calling me, I never heard of the last name," said Johnny L. Welch, 81, the women's great-uncle and a lifelong St. Petersburg resident.

Attendance at the funeral is expected to be so great today that the family moved it to the enormous First Baptist Church on Gandy Boulevard.

On Monday someone brought fried chicken and rice for dinner. Tuesday was Italian. Wednesday, former Mayor Rick Baker brought Chick-fil-A. Thursday, plates of jerk chicken appeared.

"They're calling us and asking what can we do?" Ricardo said. "And they feel guilty if everything's already been done."

• • •

India Welch, 24, was the most widely recognized sister because she sang everywhere. Any church, any service, anytime anyone asked.

She sang at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum twice this year. When Cody Clark picked a song with jazz for his choir, he asked India to sing it. "She was the only one who could handle that kind of arrangement," he said.

Darlene Butler-Welch, India's mother, knew her little girl was special the first time she heard her sing. India was 5, on stage hitting a solo.

"When she bellowed out the sound, people jumped up and clapped, and she fell off the stage because they scared her," Butler-Welch recalled. The little girl popped back up and kept going.

Last year, India put on a concert at her father's church titled "Goodbye Fear, Hello Victory!" She told Ricardo she wanted to work in a church so that she could be the first to sing, to set the mood during services. Her powerful voice, he said, could soothe worshipers, put their struggles at bay and open them up for deliverance.

"She was just anointed with a different type of voice," he said.

That devotion to the ministry is everything to the Welch family.

"The church is our life," said Marilyn Welch, the women's grandmother. "We depend on God for everything."

Conversations often digress into Scripture, stories of David or passages from Corinthians. Their complete trust that God has a plan has helped them carry on.

"For the Bible says, 'Yea do I go through the valley of death, I will fear no evil,'" Ricardo said. "Letting us know first off: We're not staying there."

• • •

Tehira Welch, 18, was an artist. She drew and danced, but her real love was fashion.

A rising senior at Gibbs, she had already begun making and selling her own clothes.

Her style? Eclectic.

"She had the ability to pull off things that most people could not, and I think that was just a testament to how beautiful she was," said Corbett, her brother.

Tehira bought T-shirts then spliced them with leopard print and Army camouflage. Somehow, Ricardo said, it looked good. Everything she did was imbued with unique flair. Born deaf, she used hearing aids and sign language, but never the latter in church.

"She didn't want anybody to know," Darlene Butler-Welch said.

Tehira signed up for cheerleading, her father said, and "was more in time" than her peers who could hear perfectly.

The Welches believe in anointing oils as a symbol of God's power to heal. Ricardo's father, Clarence, who led Prayer Tower for decades, doted on a young Tehira as only a grandfather could, believing that God would help her hear.

"Every time she used to come out the office from my dad's she'd be greasy," Ricardo recalled. "He'd been anointing her ears."

Clarence Welch died two years ago, but his memory continues to guide his family, especially this week. As much as anyone, he built the big yellow sanctuary on 37th Street S that has become such a refuge.

The pastor's office hums with fond memories and Bible quotes. The family is certain the girls are with their grandfather.

Music from the sanctuary trickles in. People fill nearly every pew for a choir practice before the women's wake. Their volume cannot be denied.

Ricardo, Ken, Sharon — they all go to watch. They feel the gospel fill the room, the voices lifting them, everyone swaying to a familiar beat.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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