The families of Christopher Watkins and Tonya Gonzalez-Suarez say they were inseparable, and the belief that they still are is about the only thing bringing relatives comfort after losing the pair in a freak accident this week.
The couple met while growing up in the Kirkwood area, but went separate ways in life when Gonzalez-Suarez dropped out of Webster Groves High School to care for her mother. Watkins graduated from there in 1990.
They reconnected about five years ago while participating in a program at St. Louis Restoration Church on South Broadway for those looking to get their lives together. Though on and off at times, for the most part they were always together after that. They rode the bus together, talked on the phone all the time and went to church together.
They got married there in a small impromptu ceremony Feb. 27.
“Her family believes he saved her life because he helped her stay sober, and we believe she saved his because she helped him stay focused,” said Coneatra Watkins, Christopher Watkins’ youngest sister. “She was the first woman who was good for him.
“He had such a good heart, and women would just use him to do their dirty business and get him into trouble.”
Watkins, 46, and Gonzalez-Suarez, 43, were two of three people killed when a boiler at the Loy-Lange Box Co. near Soulard exploded Monday, went airborne and crashed into the Faultless Linen Co. about 500 feet away.
As was common in life, the couple was together that morning, eagerly reporting for a new job they got at the healthcare linen cleaning company. They learned about the job through another member of their church program, who was there filling out new-hire paperwork with them Monday.
He remains in critical condition.
Authorities previously released the name of the third person to die — Kenneth Trentham, 59, of St Louis. Trentham was a worker at Loy-Lange. His family has declined comment.
For Gonzalez-Suarez’s family, the accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. Her son, Nathaniel Favignano, 22, said he was just starting to repair his relationship with his mother, and her death has devastated his sister, Nicole Favignano, 24, too. Their grandfather suffered a heart attack Saturday while they were moving into a new home in O’Fallon, Mo., and remains medically sedated.
They haven’t told him of his daughter’s death, as doctors have advised against adding any more stress on his heart. They’ve tried to keep their broken hearts quiet around him in the hospital, Nathaniel Favignano said.
“She was happier than I had ever seen her in a long time,” he said. “It’s terrible it had to happen like this, but they really did do everything together and we’re just so happy they left together, even though it’s so hard to think of it being that way.”
Neither family wanted to discuss the problems that led the couple to the church program, instead focusing on how far they had come in recent months.
Gonzalez-Suarez was proud that she and her husband had landed the new jobs, too, even posting a picture on Facebook moments before they went inside the facility with the words, “It’s our first day on the new job!” her son said.
She had been working at Taco Bell and Watkins had been working at Lion’s Choice, and taking the bus to different locations was taking up a lot of their time. Both insisted on riding the bus to each other’s job, to “pick each other up,” Coneatra Watkins said.
Watkins suffered a minor heart attack March 17. When his aunt, Glenda Gordon of Glendale, arrived at the hospital, Gonzalez-Suarez was by his side.
Relatives said Watkins was known for his humor. While at the hospital, he sent his cousin in Texas a picture of himself lifting his gown to expose the monitors on his chest. It was his way of proving that he wasn’t just trying to pull off another of his famous jokes, relatives said.
His sister, Casaundra Watkins of Memphis, recalled how she would scold Watkins if he cursed while they were talking and he’d always reply: “I do it because it’s the only thing that makes you stop talking.” That memory sent a table full of relatives gathered at the family’s home in Glendale into laughter.
The families spent Wednesday cleaning out the couple’s apartment in St. Ann. Gordon wore her nephew’s name tag from Lion’s Choice during an interview at her home.
“He was proud of this job, too,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Watkins was a volunteer coach for the Kirkwood Junior Football League from 2008 through 2012. He had one brother and three sisters and was one of 22 first cousins.
Family from throughout the country are trying to get to St. Louis for his funeral, which is set for Tuesday at the Yandell Mortuary.
Gonzalez-Suarez’s family also is traveling to attend her memorial service. A public visitation is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at Kutis Funeral Home at 2906 Gravois. They have established an online fundraising site at gofundme.com to help cover travel costs for the family and assist with burial arrangements.
Neither had an insurance policy.
They will be buried together at Oak Hill Cemetery.
The blue button-down blouse Gonzalez-Suarez wore to their wedding will be buried with her husband. The blue and white checkered button-down shirt Watkins wore will be buried with her.
Editor's note: This version corrects address of Kutis Funeral Home.