MARROWBONE, Ky. (AP) - Three Mennonite men sliced through planks
of wood with electric saws as they built the simple boxes that
would hold the caskets of members of a church family killed in a
fiery highway crash.
The buzz of their equipment pierced the silence of another group
praying inside the family's home nearby.
It's not the kind of work the close-knit community relishes -
but they were determined and solemn Saturday as they made all the
necessary arrangements to bury nine of their own.
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 an interstate
in central Kentucky 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."
Although burial still hadn't been scheduled for the Mennonites
involved in the crash, 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.
Many Mennonites fought back tears and consoled one another,
though they said the deaths were somehow God's will.
"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 Esh family had experienced hardship before - and their small
community was quick to respond then, too. A fire destroyed the
family's home last year, forcing one of the girls to escape by
leaping out of an upstairs window onto a trampoline. Within two
months, other Mennonites had built them a new home next to John and
Sadie's vinyl siding business.
On Saturday, a sign that read "Jesus may come today" was on
Church member William Carey helped build the house and was back
at work Saturday helping to construct the casket boxes.
"Instant depression and letdown," Carey said. "I am still in
Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood opened as a sister congregation
to one the Eshes attended in North Carolina. About six years ago,
it was transitioned 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 to make the change.
"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
Hazel Smith, who works at an adult daycare center, said the
Eshes would often sing to the people there, including their
rendition of "Amazing Grace" on their latest visit. The family,
full of talented singers, had recorded several albums. The family
traveled many places, including their performances, 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 and his wife, Naomi. Jalen,
the adopted infant son of Leroy and Naomi, also was killed.
Funerals for the family and Gingerich were set for Tuesday.
Family friend Ashlie Kramer and the truck driver, 45-year-old
Kenneth Laymon of Alabama, also died.
The only survivors of the crash were two boys from Guatemala
also adopted by the couple as infants. Police credited child safety
seats for sparing Josiah, 5, and Johnny, 3. Federal investigators
are still working to determine what caused the crash.
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
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)