Published February 25, 2011
MAYFIELD, Ky. -- By the time Emanuel Wagler reached the creek with his wife and seven children in their horse and buggy, it was too dark, too deep and too late.
As Amish who eschew electricity, they might not have known that the weather service had issued a flash flood warning an hour before. But they knew it was raining hard, and Wagler's brother figured the tiny creek they had to cross would already be up to the buggy's axle.
When Wagler got there -- halfway home, a mile to go -- the creek was more like a fast-moving river. In moments, the buggy tipped over, tossing four children into the water. Then the search began.
Soon after midnight, so did the grief.
Rescuers had pulled out the bodies of three of his children. By morning, they found the body of his niece.
"We're trying to give the family some time by themselves right now to grieve," Graves County Sheriff Dewayne Redmon said. "There's no doubt that this was just a terrible accident."
The night began with a short trip to Wagler's brother's house. His family climbed aboard the horse and buggy -- a common sight on the narrow paved roads in Dublin, in western Kentucky.
Emanuel and his brother, Samuel, traveled to a push-button phone, stashed inside a little wooden shack along the road a short distance away. A stool sits just inside.
The Amish use the phone for business and to call relatives. The brothers called their father in Missouri.
"That's the main reason they came out, to call my dad," said Samuel Wagler, 37, who recounted the evening.
Later, the families ate supper. By Thursday evening, Samuel figured the tiny creek his brother had to cross had risen to about the buggy's axles.
Emanuel, his wife and seven children -- one of them Samuel's 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth -- were on their way back around 8:30 p.m., an hour after the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning.
It was unclear how news of the accident spread.
The Amish live among non-Amish in this farming community of rolling green hills near the Missouri, Tennessee and Illinois border. By Thursday evening, some 250 emergency workers were helping in the search.
They found the bodies of 5-month-old Rosemary, 5-year-old Sarahmae and 8-year-old Samuel.
Despite hopes Elizabeth may have been clinging to a tree branch, her body was found late Friday morning.
"She was just an all-around good girl," said uncle, Levi Yoder, 30, his voice cracking.
The community telephone, used just the night before for a catch-up call between sons and father, was in heavy use Friday for another reason: Amish men called their families with the tragic news.
Neighbors brought food to the farmhouse where the family lives, and an Amish woman was hanging clothes on a line beside the house. Reporters were asked to leave the property.
"The community has stepped up above and beyond," said Rachel Marler, a non-Amish neighbor.
Kentucky has nearly 8,000 Amish and 31 settlements around the state, according to the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa.
Graves County has up to 250, divided between two settlements, said Don Kraybill, a Young Center senior fellow.
Friday afternoon, the tattered, covered black buggy sat beside the creek in a cornfield. Its wheels were mud-caked and slightly buried in the thick brown soup. Part of the buggy's side had peeled away. A red blanket hung out of the cabin.
Yoder kept his own vigil, trudging through a muddy field near the creek when his niece's body was found.
"They crossed this creek, but when they came back they didn't realize it was still rising," he said, his voice choked with emotion.
Authorities say the horse survived.