Ky. Mennonites labor through grief to bury family

MARROWBONE — As members of a close-knit Mennonite community prepared to bury their own, they sliced through wooden planks with electric saws Saturday and wrestled with the loss of a family of nine killed the previous day in a Hart County crash.

The coffin work was determined and solemn, yet the buzzing saws pierced silent prayers underway in a nearby home where churchgoers reiterated their belief the deaths were God's will.

Nathaniel Yoder was among those laboring inside the workshop of a vinyl-siding business owned by John and Sadie Esh, two of the 11 people killed Friday when a tractor-trailer crossed Interstate 65 and collided head-on with the family van as they traveled to Iowa for a wedding.

"It's kind of morbid," Yoder said. "I never did anything like this. The only thing that helps is to know they're all in heaven."

The community had picked a final resting place. Eight family members and Joel Gingerich — Yoder's close friend who was engaged to one of the Eshes' daughters — were expected to be buried at a makeshift cemetery in the grassy churchyard, a few feet from a volleyball court.

The only grave there now belongs to Johnny S. Esh Jr., who died in a 2006 snowmobiling accident during a mission to Ukraine. The small marker, sitting on grassy flatland near several farms, reads: "Lost in wonder, love and praise." The woman getting married in Iowa had known him from the Ukraine trip.

On Saturday, many Mennonites fought back tears and consoled one another, trying to understand the tragedy.

"It's a little like a tapestry," said Kai Steinmann, 25. "If you focus on one piece, it looks black and bad, but it has to be a part of a bigger whole."

The truck's driver was identified Saturday as Kenneth Laymon, 45, of Danville, Ala. He was licensed and had no crashes reported in the past 24 months, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's online database.

The same site noted that Laymon's employer, a Fayette, Ala., trucking company called Hester Inc., had no vehicles involved in fatal crashes in the past 24 months. Of two accidents reported, one resulted in injuries.

A dispatcher who answered the phone at Hester's offices on Saturday declined to comment on the crash and said she could not take a message for the owners.

Laymon's body was so burned after his truck crashed that it could take some time before any useful information is discovered in tests, said Mike Wilder of the state medical examiner's office.

"There was considerable damage, and it can be difficult to determine anything very quickly when it's in that condition," Wilder said.

Preliminary investigations show the tractor-trailer left the road and plowed over a cable barrier in the median before entering oncoming traffic and striking the van head-on, said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. A cause has not yet been determined.

Hart said there was at least one witness, a second tractor-trailer driver who pulled two surviving children from the wrecked van.

Cable median barriers are considered Level Four barriers by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, strong enough to stop cars and light trucks but not a fully loaded tractor-trailer. A Level Five barrier would be a concrete wall, cabinet spokesman Chuck Wolfe said Saturday.

Although I-65 carries a lot of tractor-trailer traffic, Gov. Steve Beshear ordered the cabinet to install cable barriers along that stretch in Hart County in 2008 because of cost and location, Wolfe said. The cabinet spent $10.8 million installing 44 miles of cable barriers in five counties, largely along I-65, adding to 52 miles previously installed in Fayette, Jefferson and Oldham counties.

Wolfe said concrete barriers are used in six-lane highways with asphalt medians, not four-lane highways with grass medians. It would have cost the full $10 million to expand a mile of I-65 to six lanes, he said.

"The cabinet didn't take the cheap way out with cable here," Wolfe said.

The Esh family has experienced hardship before — and their community was quick to respond then, too. A fire destroyed the family's home last year. Within two months, other Mennonites had built them a new one.

On Saturday, a sign that read "Jesus may come today" was on the mailbox.

Church member William Carey helped build the house and was back helping construct the coffin boxes.

"Instant depression and letdown," Carey said. "I am still in shock."

Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood opened as a sister congregation to one the Eshes attended in North Carolina. About six years ago, it changed from New Order Amish to Mennonite, allowing members for the first time to drive motorized vehicles.

That was when John Esh bought the 15-passenger van that was involved in the crash. Pastor Leroy Kauffman recalled getting his driver's license with Esh, also a minister in the church, who was reluctant at first.

"He was concerned about stepping the lifestyle up in the faster pace," Kauffman said.

Florist Wanda Branham, who wasn't part of the Mennonite church but knew many of the family members, recalled Gingerich often stopping by her shop to buy one or two roses for Rachel Esh, his bride-to-be, who also was killed in the accident.

Sometimes, Branham's husband would tease Gingerich, urging him to spring for a full dozen.

"He would say, 'I'm not that far yet,'" Branham recalled.

But Monday, four days before the crash, Gingerich was in the shop for his largest order yet — one dozen red roses and a dozen pink.

Hazel Smith, who works at an adult day-care center, said the Eshes would often sing there, including their rendition of Amazing Grace. The family, full of singers, had recorded several albums and traveled many places in the van hit by the tractor-trailer.

In addition to John and Sadie Esh, the dead included their children Anna, Rose, Rachel and Leroy. Also killed were Leroy Esh's wife, Naomi, and their adopted infant son, Jalen.

Family friend Ashlie Kramer also died.

The only survivors of the crash were two boys from Guatemala also were adopted by the couple as infants. Police credited child safety seats for sparing Josiah, 5, and Johnny, 3.

It took Josiah little time after the crash to begin asking where his parents were.

When told they had gone to heaven, Kauffman said, the boy reacted almost as if he already knew.

"He seems to be kind of in shock — very quiet, very subdued, just watching what's going on around him," Kauffman said. "Very heart-wrenching."

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