MUNFORDVILLE, Ky. — A tractor-trailer loaded with auto parts crossed a highway median and slammed head-on into a van carrying a Mennonite family, killing 11 people before dawn Friday on a hilly stretch of interstate.
The dead included an engaged couple and several members of their family, whose house burned down in December. Two children in the van were the only survivors of the crash about 75 miles south of Louisville.
After the collision, the truck smashed into a rock wall and burst into flames. The driver, the lone occupant, was also killed.
A pastor for the family said they were traveling to a wedding in Iowa, and the engaged couple planned their own wedding for July.
"They'll have a wedding in heaven, I guess," said Leroy Kauffman, pastor of Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood.
The crash was the deadliest single accident in Kentucky since a 1988 bus crash in which 27 people died when a church bus carrying a youth group was hit by a drunken driver.
Kauffman said the family was from Burkesville, in southern Kentucky. Those killed were John and Sadie Esh and some of their children and grandchildren. The youngest victims were ages 1, 3 and 5.
Kauffman said John Esh was an assistant pastor at his church in Burkesville, about 55 miles southeast of the crash site. Also killed were a daughter-in-law of the Eshes and another daughter's fiance.
As crews cleaned up debris, one of the workers found a woman's brown purse decorated with pompoms and containing a Bible.
A bulldozer loaded still-smoldering debris from the truck into large containers. Twisted bits of metal littered the roadside.
The heavily damaged van was mostly shrouded with tarpaulins. A bench seat from the van rested on the road with two children's' car seats attached.
The National Transportation Safety Board was dispatching a team to investigate the wreck.
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 the Esh family after meeting one of its members on a mission trip to Ukraine in 2006 or 2007. That man, John Esh Jr., died in a snowmobiling accident in Ukraine, but Lorena Ropp met his family when she returned.
The Esh family had made two previous trips to Kalona and was driving to Lorena's wedding when they crashed.
"It is so extreme, so much bad," Wayne Ropp said.
Ropp said the Eshes were Beachy Mennonites, a different branch from his. But he said both branches share the belief that entry into heaven is immediate and assured for their followers.
"It's joyous, yet the loss of a loved one is sad, tough to bear," Wayne Ropp said.
In the addition to John and Sadie Esh, the dead included their children Anna, Rose, Rachel and Leroy, authorities said.
A cousin, Martha Byler of Altoona, Pa., said Leroy Esh's wife, Naomi, was also killed, along with one of their adopted son, Jalen Esh. Also among the dead was Rachel's fiance, Joel Gingerich. The coroner said family friend Ashley Kramer was also killed.
The name of the truck driver, who was from Alabama, was not immediately released.
State of grief
Gov. Steve Beshear said the entire state grieved. The Kentucky Senate observed a moment of silence on Friday for the victims.
Senate President David Williams, who is from Burkesville, said the victims were his constituents and that he knew the family well.
"These were wonderful people," an emotional Williams said to a somber Senate chamber. "They were hardworking. They were great citizens."
Kauffman said the family's house burned down in December, and they had just moved into a new home built by church members.
"We're experiencing a lot of heartache and a lot of sadness, but with that a hope," Kauffman said. "We know where these people are going. They were all saved Christians and walking with the Lord."
On the section of the highway where Friday's crash occurred, crews installed cable barriers last year to prevent vehicles from crossing the median into oncoming lanes, said Ann Gibson, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
But Trooper Charles Swiney of the Kentucky State Police said the barriers would not have stopped a fully loaded truck.
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