MARROWBONE, Ky. – Scared but curious after surviving a horrific interstate crash in south-central Kentucky that killed 11 people, including eight from the Mennonite family that adopted him, Josiah Esh wanted to know where his parents were.
When the 5-year-old from Guatemala was told they had gone to heaven, a pastor said the boy reacted almost as if he already knew.
very quiet, very subdued, just watching what's going on around him. Very heart-wrenching," said Leroy Kauffman, pastor of Marrowbone Christian Brotherhood in Burkesville, Ky.
Kauffman said he and other church members rushed to Munfordville on Friday after hearing the news about a fatal collision there between a tractor-trailer and a large van carrying Kentucky Mennonites. He knew almost immediately the Eshes were involved because during a church meeting the night before, family members asked the congregation to pray for their safe travels to Iowa, where they planned to attend a wedding.
Police credited child safety seats for sparing Josiah and his brother, Johnny, 3, the lone survivors. Kauffman said the boys slept in a truck belonging to a man who witnessed the accident while the truck driver waited for officials to arrive at the scene.
Hearses brought some of the bodies back to Burkesville on Friday night, and church members were preparing to bury them in coming days at graves they would dig by hand at a churchyard cemetery. The only person currently buried there is another family member, John Esh Jr., who died in a snowmobiling accident during a mission in Ukraine.
Even as some fought back tears of grief, members of the close-knit Mennonite community said they were convinced 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."
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 John Esh Jr. on a mission trip to Ukraine in 2006 or 2007, when he died in the snowboarding accident. 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," 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.
After the collision, the truck smashed into a rock wall and burst into flames. The driver, the lone occupant, was also killed. Police said he was from Alabama but didn't immediately provide other information.
In addition to John and Sadie Esh, the dead included their children Anna, Rose, Rachel, and Leroy and his wife, Naomi. Johnny and Josiah are the adopted sons of Leroy and Naomi. Their adopted son from Utah, Jalen, also was killed.
Rachel's fiance, Joel Gingerich, also died. The coroner said family friend Ashlie Kramer also was killed.
As crews cleaned up debris, one of the workers found a brown woman's 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.
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.
Christopher Hart, the vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who arrived in Kentucky on Friday to help investigate the wreck, said the cable barriers aren't designed to withstand the force of a tractor-trailer. The large truck had crossed the median and hit the family's van head-on.
Hart said the investigation will look at the barriers as well as the company that owned the truck, Hester Inc. of Fayette, Ala., and the driver. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's online records, the company's 25 trucks and 30 drivers had been involved in two crashes in the past two and a half years, and only one of those resulted in any injuries.
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."
Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Munfordville, Ky.; Dylan T. Lovan and Janet Cappiello Blake in Louisville, Ky.; Randall Dickerson and Kristin M. Hall in Nashville, Tenn.; and Nigel Duara in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this story.