MARROWBONE, Ky. — 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 quiet of another group praying inside the family’s home nearby.

It’s not the kind of work the close-knit community relishes – but it was determined and solemn Saturday as it made all the necessary arrangements to bury nine of its 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 the mailbox.

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 shock.”

Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood opened as a sister congregation to one the Eshes attended in North Carolina. About six years ago, it made the transition 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 fiance, who also was killed in the accident.

Sometimes, Branham’s husband would tease Gingerich, urging him to spring for a 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 ones.

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 heart-wrenching.”


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