The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Mayfield tornado killed a young couple and two of their five children, devastating a close-knit Amish community

Amish people ride in a horse-drawn carriage past a church that was damaged by a tornado on Dec. 13 in Mayfield, Ky. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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MAYFIELD, Ky. — Through the rain and darkness on Friday night, Chris Crawford heard a baby crying.

The tobacco farmer had ventured into the howling wind a half-hour earlier to warn his neighbors before the tornado hit.

Jacob and Emma Gingerich, both 31, lived across the road with their five children. Their house was a stripped-down double-wide trailer — no electricity, no running water, no indoor bathroom, in accordance with their Amish belief that one should live life as simply as possible.

Now the storm seemed to have passed, and Crawford put on a head lamp and jumped into his ATV to check on them. He saw pieces of his barn’s aluminum roof scattered like torn tissue paper in the trees. When he reached his neighbor’s home, it had disappeared.

Ammon, 8, the eldest of the five children, was barefoot, shaking and crying. Sarah, 3, was alive under some debris. Crawford still heard a baby’s wail. More than 50 yards away, down a slope packed with wreckage, he found Ben, just an infant, lying on the ground in only a diaper.

There was no sign of Jacob, Emma and their two other children. Searchers found their bodies hours later.

The loss of four members of a single family has shattered the local Amish community, part of a conservative sect that believes in remaining separate from the modern world. By Monday, relatives had gathered from five states to grieve in this rural area south of Mayfield.

Black carriages, each drawn by a single horse, lined the gravel driveway leading to a simple, two-story white house that is the home of Jacob’s sister and Emma’s brother, who are married to each other.

Inside, the bodies of their dead relatives were laid out in a back room. The mourners filed through several times a day, as per custom.

Hymns would be sung, in German, for hours, and relatives would stay with the dead all through the night, family and community members said. On Tuesday, the parents and their children will be buried nearby.

Jacob’s paternal uncle — whose name is also Jacob Gingerich and who is 57 years old — came from central Kentucky to mourn.

“It’s hard, but you know — it was meant to be, or it couldn’t have been,” he said, adding that he believes his nephew, his wife and two of their children had left a sinful world and were in a better place.

He feels the worst, he said, for the three little ones who remain.

Abe Gingerich, Jacob’s father, said the surviving children were “bruised up some” but physically all right. He declined to answer further questions. Others said the youngsters will be taken in by relatives.

Inside the house, rows of women dressed in black dresses and bonnets sat together on wooden benches. White laundry fluttered on a nearby line. The Amish men, all bearded, stood mostly outside, talking quietly and smoking.

Daniel Yoder, 24, worked for Jacob Gingerich at his sawmill, which was behind the trailer and next to the lumber yard. Both young men were part of the Swartzentruber community, a branch of the Amish that adheres strictly to ideals of simplicity.

Gingerich moved to the area in 2020 and wanted to build a real home for his family where the trailer stood, Yoder said. He worked hard and was an honest man.

“He would not take a dollar from you,” Yoder said. “He used everybody fair.”

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Emma and Jacob were both dark-haired, and Emma had a sweet smile that she lavished on her children, people who knew them said.

Ronnie Dale Murphy, who owns the lumber company next to the trailer, remembered how the children would always greet him with waves. Ammon, the eldest, often came down the small slope to watch the loaders and forklifts at the lumber yard.

“They were such good medicine,” Murphy said. “I loved that family.”

Relatives who had traveled from as far away as Wisconsin — by bus, since members of the community avoid being in cars — walked up a winding road under clear blue skies Monday afternoon to the spot where the family’s home once stood.

Chickens picked their way through the wreckage, stopping to peck at broken glass jars of corn, beets and peaches stored for winter.

Signs of the children were everywhere: a jigsaw puzzle, a small black shoe, a tiny blanket. A blue plastic swing hung on a tree, somehow still standing, its branches full of debris.

When the Gingerich family had moved in, they took everything out of the trailer but the essentials, said Murphy, the lumberyard owner. They used an outhouse rather than a bathroom. They even stripped out the interior walls, he said.

When the tornado came, he said, the trailer “just literally exploded.” All that was left was a porch and some wooden steps.

On Monday, Murphy and his co-workers were still combing through the debris, hoping to retrieve items of value to give back to the family. They found the children’s birth certificates and Jacob’s wallet. Two of his horse carriages were mangled and crushed. A gun safe lay on its side, burst open.

There are no plans to rebuild, for now. But Murphy said he hopes to fulfill Jacob’s dream someday, constructing a real house on the site, perhaps for Ammon to live in.

Murphy said he felt like passing out when he first saw the destruction the tornado had wrought.

He found the body of the family’s 7-year-old daughter, Marilyn, next to a pile of logs. Four-year-old Daniel was lying nearby.

Jacob Gingerich was under the frame of the trailer, which had flipped upside down and traveled 20 yards through the air before landing, Murphy said.

Emma was not far from where little Ben had been crying when Crawford came to him and picked him up. A short distance away was a red blanket.

Rescuers said they think Emma had been holding Ben in her arms, wrapped in that blanket, when the storm hit.