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Highway Angel recalls horror of Kentucky crash one year ago

Kenneth Laymon and his daughter Lacie. (Courtesy: MISTY LAYMON)

By BRUCE SCHREINER
The Associated Press

3/26/2011

MUNFORDVILLE, Ky. — Andy Burkhart was a stranger thrust into the role of comforter for two dazed and scared Mennonite children just moments after a horrific crash wiped out much of their family.

The chance encounter lasted only a half-hour or so, but the Michigan truck driver feels a connection to the two young boys who lost their parents, paternal grandparents, a brother and three aunts in a crash that claimed 11 lives in all.

Burkhart was bound for Chicago with a load of candy when he watched in horror as a tractor-trailer crossed the median of Interstate 65 in south-central Kentucky and slammed into a van carrying the Mennonite family to a wedding in Iowa.

A year has passed. Burkhart said he thinks about the boys and their shattered family each day, but can't bring himself to reach out and reconnect with them. Not yet, at least.

"I've sort of separated myself from the family because I don't want to relive it again," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview this week before the first anniversary of the March 26 crash. "That's sad to say because they're great people. ... But it's so hard for me to associate myself with them because of what I had to witness and endure."

Most of those killed in the crash were the extended family of John and Sadie Esh of Marrowbone, where John Esh owned a vinyl-building business.

Along with the couple, killed were their adult daughters Rose, Anna and Rachel; and their son and daughter-in-law, Leroy Esh and wife Naomi and their adopted infant son, Jalen. Two other victims in the van were Rachel's fiance, Joel Gingerich, and Ashlie Michelle Kramer, a family friend.

The truck driver, Kenneth Laymon of Jasper, Ala., also died.

The only survivors were two older adopted sons of Leroy and Naomi Esh: Josiah, now 6, and Johnny, 4. They have resettled in Maryland with family.

The oldest boy in particular has been haunted by the memories, said Leroy Kauffman, the family's pastor. The boy has been quiet and withdrawn since the crash.

"It was a long time before they finally got him to open up and tell them what he was facing. He was facing nightmares," Kauffman said.

The pastor doesn't see the boys often now that they've moved, but one encounter with the younger boy at church since the crash showed that the tragedy weighs on the boys' minds.

"He walked in and he looked up at my face and he got this quizzical expression and he said, 'You were at the accident,'" Kauffman said. "Somehow he made the connection because I was one of the first ones he would have seen from the church."

It was Burkhart and two other passers-by who pulled the boys from the wreckage just minutes after the crash. Burkhart had to move bodies to extract the children. Burkhart tucked the boys safely into the sleeping compartment of his rig.

Burkhart told the Kentucky State Police that morning, in a recorded interview obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that shortly after the boys were rescued from the van, the tractor exploded.

He was awarded with a "Highway Angel" designation from the Truckload Carriers Association, an industry group, for his actions that morning.

He later told state police he was "very distraught" while recounting the horrific crash and his chance encounter with two traumatized children.

"I comforted the children, tried to talk to them, tried to soothe their, their scaredness if you will," he said.

Once the children were in his truck, the other two passers-by left, he told the AP.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, help me out here,'" said Burkhart, himself the father of two.

The children were quiet at first, but then the older boy started crying out for his father.

"'Where's my daddy?'" he recalled the boy crying. "I'll never forget it. 'Where's my daddy?' The answer to that was, 'They're taking care of them right now.' What else could you say?"

Moments before the crash, the Esh family's van had passed Burkhart's rig, which was getting up to speed to merge onto the interstate. He spent the night at a nearby truck stop and had just started his day on the road.

"I'm thinking (to) myself I wish I could have left a little bit sooner because he would have hit me instead of that car maybe," Burkhart said in the state police interview. "And I might have got hurt but those kids would have their parents still."

He hopes to meet the Esh children again someday.

While the National Transportation Safety Board aims to finish its report on the cause of the crash by fall, the survivors and mourners are slowly trying to put their lives back together.

Kauffman, the pastor, said he thinks the Esh family is eager to review the NTSB's findings, though "it's not going to change anything at all."

Seven of John and Sadie Esh's children are still living, he said, though they are scattered, living in such far-flung places as South Dakota, Texas and Brazil. The Esh family is rejoicing the recent birth of a baby girl — born to another son of John and Sadie Esh and his wife. The baby is Rachel, named after the aunt she'll never know.

The Gingerich family is about to celebrate a wedding. An older brother of Joel Gingerich's is getting married next month to a daughter of Kauffman's. But even in times of joy, there's melancholy.

"Even the wedding is bringing back memories," Kauffman said.

Kauffman said the Esh family will mark the anniversary in private, a wish the close-knit Mennonite community will respect.

"They're just kind of quiet and subdued," he said. "They were a very close family and they're a very godly family. They don't want a lot of publicity or to make a big show of it. I am sure they're really hurting. I know they are."

Misty Laymon, widow of the Alabama truck driver whose rig plowed into the van, said that she, her children and other family planned to visit Laymon's grave for a time of quiet reflection on the anniversary.

"I think the saddest part is knowing that after Saturday, everything we do after that day we won't be able to say, 'Well we did this with dad last year, or we did that.' It will be moving into the time where he wasn't with us."

Laymon has moved since the crash to the Alabama town where her husband's parents live. She's gone back to school to become a registered nurse.

"It's better than it was," she said. "You don't ever quit missing them. That never goes away. You just don't get that bend-you-over pain in your heart so much when you think about it, like you did at first. I think that's God's grace."

Associated Press Writer Janet Cappiello contributed from Louisville, Ky.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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