Image: Esh family funeral
Ed Reinke  /  AP
The casket of one of the Esh family members is carried to the burial site in Marrowbone, Ky., on Tuesday.
updated 3/30/2010 5:49:07 PM ET 2010-03-30T21:49:07

More than 3,000 mourners, most of them Mennonites or Amish, traveled by the busload Tuesday to pay their respects to nine Mennonites killed when a tractor-trailer struck a family's van in south-central Kentucky.

For one morning, a large former warehouse became a church during the memorial service for John and Sadie Esh, six other family members and the fiancee of one of their daughters.

The family's pastor, Leroy Kauffman, urged the audience to trust in God, even in the face of tragedy. He said he had faith the family did that when they saw the headlights of the tractor-trailer on Interstate 65 before dawn Friday as the van traveled to Iowa for a wedding.

"When the headlights shine through your windshield, what will your answer be?" he said.

Kauffman recalled John Esh, a fellow minister, speaking at a church meeting the night before the fatal crash. Esh opened his message with the greeting: "Welcome, Overcomers."

Pay respects to strangers
Many at the funeral came from hundreds of miles away to pay their respects to nine people they had never met. The women wore long black dresses with white bonnets, the men black suits without ties.

After the two-hour service, attendees viewed open caskets, each alongside a picture of the dead. The youngest victim, the infant Jalen, was buried in the casket of his adopted mother, Naomi Esh.

Also killed was Naomi's husband, Leroy Esh, his sisters Anna, Rose and Rachel, and Rachel's fiancee, Joel Gingerich.

Another occupant of the Esh van, family friend Ashlie Kramer of Franklin, Ky., was buried Monday. The funeral for the driver of the tractor truck, Kenneth Laymon of Jasper, Ala., was set for Wednesday.

Two Guatemalan children, adopted by Leroy and Naomi Esh, survived the crash, spared because they were in child safety seats, police said.

A preliminary investigation showed the tractor-trailer left the road and plowed over a cable barrier in the median before it struck the van. A cause has not yet been determined.

Cemetery had held only one grave
The burial was held at Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood, where the family attended church — including years earlier when it was an Amish congregation. Once the church made the transition to Mennonite, the Eshes bought the 15-passenger van that was involved in the accident.

The only other person buried at the cemetery, surrounded by farmland near a volleyball court, is Esh's son, Johnny Esh Jr., who was killed in a snowmobiling accident in 2006 in Ukraine. The wedding in Iowa was for a woman who knew Johnny Esh Jr. during his overseas missions.

Mourners arrived early and stood in long lines filing into the warehouse, which had only metal folding chairs for seating. Family members sat facing the audience behind a podium as the coffins lined the front.

The hymns were sung a cappella, including one said to be a favorite of John Esh that included the phrase, "Changed from glory into glory 'til in heaven we take our place."

While the days since the accident have included much mourning, the Mennonites also worked to build the casket boxes and frequently reiterated their belief that the deaths were somehow God's will.

"We don't understand it," said Johnny Miller, a visiting minister from Ohio. "We have never really experienced it, yet the word of God tells us this is so."

Another minister, Urie Kanagy of Maryland, acknowledged accepting this could be difficult.

"We look at some of those pictures and we look at these bodies and we can hardly fathom what has happened," he said. "I believe there was a lot of angelic activity there at that moment."

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

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