MUNFORDVILLE — They were an extended family of Mennonites from south-central Kentucky, on their way to a wedding in Iowa, when their path crossed that of an out-of-control tractor-trailer on Interstate 65 shortly before dawn Friday.
Ten people in the Esh family's dark green 15-passenger van were killed near Munfordville. The driver of the truck also died. He had not been identified as of Friday evening.
The truck, carrying brake drums to Alabama, had crossed the median and hit the van head-on before bursting into flames against a rock embankment.
It was Kentucky's worst highway crash since May 14, 1988, when 27 children were killed in a fiery church bus crash caused by a drunken driver going the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Carroll County.
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Miraculously, two children, ages 3 and 5, survived Friday's crash with little more than a bloody nose for one of them.
The Esh family was from the Marrowbone community in Cumberland County.
Jessie Crabtree, a radio personality with WKYR in Burkesville who was spokeswoman for the family, said those who were involved in the crash were: John Esh and his wife, Sadie; their daughters, Rose, Anna and Rachel; Rachel's fiancé, Joel Gingerich; Ashlie Kramer, a family friend from Franklin; John and Sadie's son Leroy Esh and his wife, Naomi; and their three adopted boys, Johnny, Josiah and Jalen, who was 2 months old and had been with the family only two weeks.
Jalen, from Utah, died. Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he did not know whether Jalen was in a car seat.
Johnny and Josiah, who were from Guatemala, survived; they were secured in car seats in the van's third row. They were to stay with Naomi Esh's parents.
Bishop Leroy Kauffman of Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood said that John Esh was an assistant pastor in the church. The church converted from Amish to Mennonite seven years ago to travel and spread its message, and the van was John Esh's first vehicle, Kauffman said.
John Esh made vinyl storage buildings, Kauffman said. The family also sang and made CDs that they sold to finance missionary work in Brazil.
It's not the first time tragedy had struck the Esh family.
The Esh family's house in Marrowbone had burned in December, and they had just moved into a new one built by church members, Kauffman said.
Another Esh son, Johnny Jr., died four years ago in a snowmobile accident while on a missionary trip to Ukraine.
When he learned about Friday's crash, Kauffman said, "I just couldn't help but think about the reunion in heaven."
In Kalona, Iowa, a relative of the woman who was to be married said his sister was going ahead with her wedding Saturday despite the tragedy.
Wayne Ropp said his sister, Lorena, had gotten to know Johnny Esh Jr. on a mission trip to Ukraine in 2006 or 2007. Lorena Ropp met his family when she returned.
'It was horrific'
Friday's collision happened at 5:16 a.m. CDT near the 63-mile marker south of Munfordville. It's a stretch that has had other crashes involving vehicles that crossed the median.
The name of the truck driver was not released, pending an autopsy, said Mike Wilder, who is with the state medical examiner's office. The driver's body was badly burned, but the cause of his death could hold clues to what caused his truck to veer across the interstate.
A federal investigator said the truck was hauling for Hester Inc., based in Fayette, Ala.
Wilder said he was told that the victims were wearing seat belts and ambulance crews cut them when they arrived to see if anyone survived. The two boys who survived the crash were "properly restrained" in car seats, said Charlie Swiney, a Kentucky State Police spokesman.
Everyone who perished in the Esh van died of blunt force trauma, Wilder said. Five county coroners were helping Wilder with the bodies, he said. The van was taken to a county building to be studied.
The force of the collision knocked the transmission and engine out of the van. It came to rest among brake drums from the truck.
Debris was still piled along the interstate hours after the crash. There was a blanket, a blood-stained pillow, a tennis shoe and a pink stuffed animal.
"It was horrific," said Swiney.
Kentucky State Police said multiple agencies responded to the scene. The National Transportation Safety Board announced it would investigate Friday's crash.
The northbound lanes of I-65 were closed for 11 hours, and state roads used at detours were clogged with slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Hours after the collision, Linda Wright, who runs a Discount Tobacco store at the interchange a couple of miles from the scene of the crash, said traffic had been backed up in Munfordville, which is about 75 miles south of Louisville, all morning.
"It's just really bad," Wright said. "My shop is right here on the interstate and it's just really bad."
Friday afternoon, Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife Jane issued a statement expressing their condolences to the families and friends of crash victims.
"Today and the days that follow will be very difficult for these families and the surrounding community," the statement said. "Our entire state grieves with the community and all the families will remain in our thoughts and prayers."
State Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, asked House members to observe a moment of silence for victims of the crash. Richards represents a district near the scene.
The state Senate also held a moment of silence.
An emotional Senate President David Williams, whose Burkesville home is near Marrowbone, said he knew the Eshes "very well."
"They were wonderful, wonderful people," he said.
About 100 Mennonites live in Marrowbone. They were Amish when they arrived in the area a decade ago, but switched to the Mennonite faith, which allows them to drive motor vehicles and use modern conveniences such as telephones.
Members of the community who met with the media Friday said they would put their faith in God.
"Our faith believes very strongly that things happen because God knows what's best for us," Kia Steinmann said. "We will accept the will of God."
There are tentative plans to hold the funerals for those who died some time next week in a former Carhartt warehouse in the area. Mennonites from other states are expected to attend, Steinmann said. Kauffman said he expects attendance of more than 1,000.
The Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood had a cemetery, but the only grave there holds Johnny Esh Jr.
There soon will be many more.