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Family, friends remember three St. Petersburg women killed in car crash in Desoto County

Tiffaney Cooney, left, wipes tears as Jackie Shields hugs Clayton Harmon after a vigil Monday night at Genesis Worship Center in Gulfport. Harmon said he was a cousin to the sisters. “She was my rock, man,” he said of India.
Tiffaney Cooney, left, wipes tears as Jackie Shields hugs Clayton Harmon after a vigil Monday night at Genesis Worship Center in Gulfport. Harmon said he was a cousin to the sisters. “She was my rock, man,” he said of India.
Published Aug. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The pastor's daughters were driving home after a day of song and prayer when the truck appeared in front of them.

A pickup streaking across the roadway, hydroplaning, its wheels skating across State Road 70 into their lane. LaMour Welch, 29, tried to swerve but could not avoid the impact, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. She died in the collision along with her sisters, India, 24, and Tehira, 18 — all of St. Petersburg — and a friend, Antwayne Robinson, 25, of Garner, N.C. They were returning home after attending a religious convention in Fort Pierce.

The driver of the pickup, Jennifer Zuniga, 30, of Venus, also died in the crash in De Soto County about 7 p.m. Sunday. A 6-year-old boy in her truck was the lone survivor, in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital on Monday morning.

"The way their life ended is their story," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, the women's cousin. "They were coming back from a convention that celebrated their faith. I know they're in a good place now because they not only talked faith, they walked faith."

The sisters' father, Ricardo D. Welch, is the pastor at Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ in St. Petersburg. He and his wife, Darlene Butler-Welch, were in a separate car and had left before the women along with two of LaMour's three children.

"It is unimaginable. I can't express words. Anyone knows me, I love my girls," the father told WTSP 10News. "To lose my daughters in this fashion has caused a rip in my heart that can't be explained."

Robinson was a friend of India's down to attend the conference and to plan a move to Florida, said Clarence Skinner, the women's uncle. Robinson's mother, Rosalee, was unavailable for comment Monday.

India Welch and Robinson met through music, Skinner said, both lovers of gospel, a skill for which the Welch family had particular acuity. India seized upon it early.

Last year, Ken Welch said, she held a concert at her father's church.

"It was about helping other young people overcome challenges in life, and that's the kind of person she was," he said.

A former class president at Gibbs High School, India cared deeply about her community, said Terri Lipsey Scott, director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. She was a family and community liaison at Bay Point Middle School, according to a school district spokeswoman.

India sang at a couple of Woodson events this year, Scott said, including the Juneteenth celebration.

"Her light will forever illuminate throughout this community," Scott said. "She has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of all who had the pleasure of meeting her."

LaMour Welch was another talented singer who worked as a nurse, her family said. She performed at her father's church, according to Ken Welch, and was listed on Facebook as the coordinator for a Back to School event at Prayer Tower on Aug. 21. LaMour graduated from Dixie Hollins High School in 2004.

"She grew up in the church," Skinner said.

Now, he said, family and friends will rally to support the children she left behind.

The youngest Welch, Tehira, was hearing-impaired and expressed her creative side through fashion. A rising senior at Gibbs High School, she peppered her Facebook profile with pictures of custom T-shirts and floral headbands that she sold to friends.

Devin Boyd, a cousin and friend at Gibbs, said Tehira was as devoted to faith as her sisters.

"She loved God like that was her best friend," Boyd said.

The Welches' roots in St. Petersburg are deep. One relative, Sharon, works in the city's information technology department. Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted Monday morning about "heavy hearts . . . in City Hall (and) throughout St. Pete."

Loved ones gathered at Prayer Tower to remember and grieve early Monday. They filled the church and spilled into the parking lot under the afternoon sun.

Then they gathered again Monday night for a service that included family and church members. The girls' cousin, Elder Samuel Davis, led the service and focused on what the girls had given to the community.

"I just thank God they came in all of our lives," Davis said. "We all share in this great loss."

According to his biography on the church's website, Ricardo Welch also has one son.

Relatives identified his daughters almost exclusively through the lens of faith. They called the Welch girls inspirational, exemplary, role models.

"All of them served the Lord," said Michael Butler, the women's uncle and another minister in the family.

"These three young ladies lived for the Lord," said Rene Flowers, a family member through marriage and member of the Pinellas County School Board. "They are shining examples of what every mom and dad would want in their daughters."

India's last Facebook post Sunday afternoon was a video from the convention in Fort Pierce. A full church moved in unison, hands clapping, legs bouncing. They sang: "Blessed! Blessed! That's what we are."

Ken Welch said the family learned of the crash about 4 a.m.

While family members gathered Monday night at Prayer Tower, members of another congregation came together for a quiet vigil at Genesis Worship Center church on 49th Street S. None of the Welch woman were members, but India was there so often she felt like part of the flock, said cousin Clayton Harmon, a 49-year-old St. Petersburg resident who attends the church.

Last Friday, India, LaMour and Antwayne performed there with a group called PRAZE Inc. India's singing "took us to a whole different place," Harmon said.

One song, I Trust You, about trusting in God's love, offers comfort now, Harmon said.

"Because I know that's what she would want us to do," he said.

Pastor Clarence Williams of the Greater Mount Zion AME Church said he spent the morning with Ricardo Welch at the family's home along with a number of other close friends.

"They have been here for so many people in this community," he said. "It's time for the community to be there for them."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird, and staff writers Tony Marrero and Elizabeth Djinis contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at Follow @ZackSampson.