Anais McConnell woke suddenly at 4:30 a.m. Sunday and realized her husband, Nathan, wasn't in bed beside her.
He, his father and two brothers had left the family's rented vacation home in Redington Beach to catch a late showing of
in nearby St. Petersburg and should have returned hours ago.
The other men weren't home either. Anais woke her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law's girlfriend.
"Hours passed and we sat on the couch waiting for them to walk through the door," Anais said Tuesday.
Maybe their car had been stolen from the movie theater parking lot and their cell phones were inside. Maybe they were walking back to the rented house and got lost.
Then the early-morning television news flashed images of a deadly car crash in St. Petersburg. Four people were dead. The car was black. No, the women thought.
That can't be our men.
At about 7 a.m., St. Petersburg police officers came to the family's vacation home and delivered the news: The McConnell men — Elroy "Roy" McConnell Jr., 51, and sons Elroy "Roy" McConnell III, 28, Nathan, 24, and Kelly, 19 — were dead, killed by a suspected drunken driver, 20-year-old Demetrius Jordan of St. Petersburg.
Suddenly, the women were widows.
The McConnell clan had gathered for a peaceful five-day vacation at the beach. It was the first time they'd all been together since Kelly's University High School graduation in 2009.
The men left for their planned guys' night at the movies after spending a day of "beach fun and family time," family members said Tuesday in a wrenching public appearance at the family home in east Orange County.
They were so looking forward to the vacation that Anais and Nathan were waiting for it to celebrate their fourth anniversary, which was two weeks ago.
"We didn't do anything special, because we knew we had this special family trip planned to celebrate our anniversary, Kelly's birthday and to see our newborn nephew," Anais said, referring to Roy III's son.
On Tuesday, the wives, girlfriend and mothers gathered to talk about the men they loved so much.
Roy Jr.'s wife, Amy Voelker, who was Kelly's mother and helped raise the older boys, said Tuesday that the family is struggling now with inconsolable sadness.
"My husband has a strong faith and part of that was forgiveness," she said. "I hope that we can all get there someday. It would be tragic if we let that young man's decision affect us in a negative way."
'My best friend'
Roy III and his wife, Sandie, fell in love while attending Louisiana College, a private Christian school where Roy played on the football team. They married after three years of dating and lived in New Orleans with their only child, Elroy McConnell IV, who was born in March.
"We thought we had the rest of our lives to spend together," Sandie said. "He was the beat of my
and the light of my day, the air that I breathe. He wasn't just my husband, but also my best friend. "
The couple planned to move back to Florida soon to be closer to his family, which he desperately missed.
Nathan and Anais were high-school sweethearts, married after dating for four years and lived in the Orlando area. Nathan had just graduated from a trade school to become an electrician and was studying to get his journeyman license.
"He was a loving husband, a father and friend. He was fun and had a big heart," she said. "He was a hard worker who provided for his family and friends."
Since the accident Sunday, their 2-year-old daughter, Kayla, has been asking for her "Daddy."
When Kelly McConnell was 8 years old he discovered his parents tithed at the church and decided that he would do so as well. Every two weeks, he donated $2 from his $8 allowance to the church.
The baby of the family, Kelly, who was studying accounting at the
, celebrated his 19th birthday just two days before he died.
"Nineteen years is a brief amount of time, but somehow Kelly seemed to fill it up to overflowing," cousin Rebecca Watson said.
He and his longtime girlfriend, Celine Parietti, planned a future together and decided that when they graduated from college and got jobs, they would donate 10 percent of their incomes to a charity.
"He has his whole future planned. It's still not real to me," Celine said Tuesday. "I keep thinking he's going to come home from Miami."
Bond of grief
The women whose love for the McConnell men brought them together now share an unbreakable bond of grief and loss.
On Tuesday, they gathered, with extended family and friends, to try to convey what the men meant to them and how their loss would resonate.
During the gathering, Lisa Raybern, Roy Jr.'s first wife and the mother of Roy III and Nathan, let out a loud sob that conveyed the heartbreak of a mother who has lost her children.
"All these men were wonderful, beautiful people," Raybern said while holding her only grandson.
The women stood in solidarity, clutching framed vacation photographs taken just hours before the men died.
Sandie held tightly to the only complete family portrait that exists. She made her husband pose for the photo just before he left for the movie Saturday night.