Caisson that carried 9/11 victim becomes part of Kentucky history

Wagon Bore body of Pentagon victim

jwarren@herald-leader.comSeptember 10, 2011 

In mid-September 2001, Versailles funeral director David Clark got a phone call from Denny Northcutt, who runs a funeral home in Morehead.

Their conversation soon turned to the devastating terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a few days earlier.

Northcutt explained that he would be in charge of services for Navy Petty Officer Edward Thomas Earhart, a Kentucky serviceman killed at the Pentagon. The family wanted a traditional caisson for the military funeral, but Northcutt couldn't find one. Did Clark have any ideas?

"You're not going to believe this," Clark replied. "But I have a brand-new caisson sitting here that's never been used, and I'll bring it to you."

A few days afterward, the caisson carried Earhart's flag-draped coffin to Morehead State University's Academic-Athletic Center, where the funeral was held. More than 2,000 people attended.

"I had ordered the caisson in June of 2001," Clark said. "It was delivered to me here on Sept. 9, and Petty Officer Earhart was killed two days later on Sept. 11."

Clark, who operates Clark Legacy Center, says his memories of those events remain strong as Kentucky and the nation prepare to observe Sunday's 10th anniversary of the terror attacks, which took the lives of Earhart and more than 3,000 other Americans.

"Looking back, it was really special to be able to provide the caisson for someone, in honor of our country," he said. "When we ordered the caisson, we never expected we would be using it like that."

Caissons are horse-drawn military wagons that were used to pull heavy cannons and ammunition in the days before motorized vehicles. Today, they are commonly used for ceremonial purposes in funerals for military personnel and for civilians.

Clark's model, built by Sanderford and Burns Wagon Co. of Gibsonville, N.C., is an exact replica of the caissons the military used long ago, and it's similar to those the Army uses for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Versailles caisson's first use will be remembered by many.

Denny Nethercutt said Earhart's death hit Morehead really hard.

Earhart, 26, attended Morehead State University, but he left the school for a Navy career. He was on duty as a weatherman at the Pentagon when an airliner, hijacked by terrorists, crashed into the building on Sept. 11.

"He was part of the Thomas family, which is one of the largest up here," Nethercutt said. "We had admirals here for the funeral, probably about 100 Navy people, and between 2,000 and 2,500 people in all."

Over the past decade, Clark's caisson has been used in many funerals, particularly those of police officers or firefighters killed in the line of duty. Last year, for example, it was used in the funeral of Lexington police officer Bryan Durman, who died after being struck by a hit-and-run driver.

Clark said the wagon also is popular with civilian families who want a special ambiance for the funerals of loved ones.

"In Central Kentucky, so many people have been touched by horses in some way," he said. "They loved horses, or they trained horses, or they owned a farm."

Clark said that the caisson is used for about half of the funerals held at his company's funeral home in Frankfort.

"There's a certain serenity about the horses' hooves hitting the blacktop and people holding hands walking to the cemetery following behind the caisson," he said.

A number of funeral homes around Kentucky now have horse-drawn hearses. But Clark said his is the only funeral home in the state with a working gun caisson.

Now, having carried one of the victims of the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil, the vehicle is, in a sense, a part of history.

"For it to be used for the first time for Edward Earhart's funeral, and for him to be the first ever carried on it, ... it's almost as if we were meant to buy it," Clark said.

Reach Jim Warren at (859) 231-3255 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3255.

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