Image: Josiah Esh, Johnny Esh
Courtesy of Jessie Crabtree  /  AP
Josiah Esh, 5, and Johnny Esh, 3, were the only survivors in a vehicle accident that killed 11 people on Interstate 65 early Friday morning near Munfordville, Ky.
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updated 3/27/2010 6:56:03 PM ET 2010-03-27T22:56:03

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 in a central Kentucky crash.

The casket work was determined and solemn, yet the buzzing saws pierced silent prayers under way in a nearby home where churchgoers reiterated their belief that 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 an interstate 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 sole survivors were two young siblings adopted by the Eshes.

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, 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."

'Jesus may come today'
Preliminary investigations showed the tractor-trailer left the road and plowed over a cable barrier in the median before it struck the van, said Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. A cause has not yet been determined.

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

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, 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 the mailbox.

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

"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.

Boys survive
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 daycare 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 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.

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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Van crash kills 11 in Kentucky

  1. Closed captioning of: Van crash kills 11 in Kentucky

    >>> pays. that's allstate's stand.

    >>> a terrible crash on i-65 in kentucky today. a semi colliding with a church van that was carrying a mennonite family to a wedding. 11 dead, two children survived, kept alive by the safety of their car seats.

    >>> now we turn to the

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