LAFAYETTE -- A community already devastated by deadly storms suffered another loss when a minister who was helping lead recovery efforts was killed in a traffic accident two days after the storm.
The Rev. Michael L. Welch, 51, died Thursday along with his wife and two of his children when a tractor-trailer slammed into the rear of their van.
Welch was pastor of First Christian Church in Shelbyville for several years in the late 1990s-early 2000s.
"We're all just numb in disbelief," said Ruth Stafford, a part-time secretary at Lafayette United Methodist Church. "We want to wake up from this nightmare."
The church was used as a family crisis center on Wednesday after a tornado killed 14 people in Macon County on Tuesday. The Rev. Welch and ministers from other churches, with help from grief counselors, talked and prayed with families who were waiting for word about missing loved ones -- or already knew.
A few hours before his death on Thursday, Welch told The Associated Press that he and other ministers tried to listen to and comfort people who suffered losses, and pray with them.
"We cling to God, because He's all we've got," he said.
Welch's wife, Julie, his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, and his 14-year-old son, Jesse, also died in the accident. Church members said Welch is survived by an adult son, who was not involved in the wreck.
The Highway Patrol reported traffic was stopped on Highway 52, just west of Lafayette, when the tractor-trailer pushed the family's Honda van into the car in front of them. Four other vehicles, including a second tractor-trailer, were also involved in the wreck, and four other people were injured.
The initial fatality report indicated that all the victims were wearing seat belts. Criminal charges were pending. Authorities had incomplete information about Gerald Judd, the driver of the semi that hit Welch's family.
The truck was owned by Wal-Mart, which is donating food, water and money to areas affected by the storm. But this truck was on a normal delivery route, said Dan Fogleman, a spokesman for the company.
Fogleman said the company, which employed the driver, was cooperating with investigators.
Welch had been at the 230-member church in Lafayette since 2004, said Bishop Richard Wills of the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"The ministry of the church as a staging area (for disaster relief) will continue right on," Wills said. "In the meantime we will focus on the healing that needs to go on as the members grieve for their pastor."
Dozens of people gathered late Thursday at Welch's church as word spread of the deaths.
"He told me he had to minister to five families who found out they had lost loved ones," said the Rev. Don Jones, pastor of the First Baptist Church that is about a block away from the Methodist Church. "They had opened the church up to any survivors, any family members."
Welch's wife Julie also talked with and comforted people who came to the church, he said.
"We were all just kind of sitting there in a state of shock," said Reba Jones, Jones' wife.
"This is one more thing. All of this has been horrible," she said, referring to the family's deaths following the tornadoes.
The church plans to continue with a Sunday service for the congregation, which Welch was planning before his death.
Welch said a likely part of weekend services would be the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil ... For Thou art with me."
Resident Pam Hopkins, who knew the family, said: "The only thing that can help our Christian hearts is knowing that family went to glory together."