Subscribe for 99¢

UPDATED with confirmation of boy's age from coroner, updated medical conditions for his siblings, and new information from local Mennonite community leader

A 7-year-old boy riding in a horse-drawn carriage with his Mennonite family was killed Thursday and four others were seriously injured when a teenage boy driving a pickup truck slammed into the back of the carriage on a two-lane highway in St. Francois County.

The Mennonites were on their way to pick blueberries at a farm just beyond the crash site. The teenager driving the pickup was on his way to work with another youth, police said.

The crash on Highway OO was about 6:45 a.m. Thursday. Highway OO runs between Farmington and Fredericktown. The crash was south of Highway DD.

The mangled carriage was on a grassy shoulder area when police arrived.

“The truck went over the top of it,” Cpl. Juston Wheetley of the Missouri Highway Patrol said. “It’s literally destroyed.”

When the pickup hit the carriage, most of the riders were thrown out of the carriage and onto the ground.

One boy riding in the buggy, Mervin H. Shirk, died. Police initially said Mervin was 8, but St. Francis County Coroner James Coplin said the boy was 7.

The carriage carried five other people, including Mervin's mother and siblings. Two children were seriously hurt and taken to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. They are Miriam H. Shirk, a 10-year-old girl, and Titus H. Shirk, a 12-year-old boy. A hospital spokeswoman on Friday said Miriam and Titus remained in serious condition.

Two adults riding in the carriage were also seriously hurt and taken to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. They are Alice H. Shirk, 50, and Dorcas H. Shirk, 21. All members of the Shirk family lived in the Farmington area.

The carriage driver, 19-year-old Allen H. Shirk, had minor injuries.

The horse was taken to a veterinarian to be checked.

The Mennonite community was established in the St. Francois County area in 2017. The carriage was in the traffic lane — as it is allowed by law to be. It was moving north when a northbound pickup truck came up from behind and plowed into it.

The crash was on a straight portion of the highway, on a slight upgrade, but there was no obvious obstruction, Wheetley said.

Missouri law allows horse-drawn carriages to use the traffic lane as long as the carriage has an orange slow-moving sign in the back.

“They did have the proper placard on it,” Wheetley said. “We know it had a sign because it is laying behind the carriage. We can tell it was on the carriage.”

The pickup that hit the carriage was a 2001 Chevrolet Silverado 2500. It was driven by a 16-year-old boy from Fredericktown, Mo., who was not injured. His passenger in the pickup was a 15-year-old boy from Fredericktown who suffered minor injuries. Both teens in the pickup were wearing seat belts. They stayed at the scene and cooperated with police, Wheetley said.

Wheetley said the pickup driver did not seem to be impaired. There were skid marks before impact, he said. Wheetley said he didn’t know how fast the pickup had been traveling. That would be part of the crash-reconstruction investigation.

Coplin, the coroner who went to the scene, said he doesn't know how fast the pickup was traveling, but he said the pickup's driver wasn't paying attention.

"When you come up on a buggy going 6 or 7 miles an hour ... somebody wasn't paying attention, I think that's what it boils down to," Coplin said. 

Buggies on the road

Horse-drawn carriages operated by members of the Mennonite or Amish communities in Missouri have been involved in deadly crashes before. In one case, a trucker driving erratically on Highway 61 in Lewis County hit the back of a horse-drawn buggy in 2007, killing two children, ages 3 and 6, and a pregnant woman riding in the buggy. The trucking company in that case took responsibility and paid the hospital bills for an Amish man and his surviving son, and bought the family a new horse and buggy.

Wheetley said motorists should stay alert for buggies.

“I want to remind people when they’re out traveling, they have a right to be there,” he said. “We should always pay attention so things like this don’t happen in the future.”

Highway OO reopened about 3½ hours after the crash.

Liberty Blueberry Farms, at 1450 State Highway OO, referenced the fatal crash on its company voicemail Thursday, announcing it would close early Thursday, the last day of the blueberry season, because “we have had a tragic loss.”

Clay Zimmerman, a minister with the Farmington Mennonite Church, said the area has two Mennonite churches. The Shirk family lives on a tract of land south of town and is part of the Old Order Mennonites. That order retains the use of horse-drawn buggies and rejects certain technology to limit the intrusion of the outside world in their lives.

Mennonites in that community began arriving in the St. Francois County area about three years ago, mostly coming from a sister church in Kentucky, Zimmerman said. Alice Shirk's husband and the father of the children in the buggy is one of the ministers who lead the church there, Zimmerman said. He was not in the carriage involved in the crash.

The other local Mennonite church is the one Zimmerman belongs to, a more progressive one, he said, whose members, for example, use cars. Zimmerman said all members of the Mennonite community will come together in "a very strong brotherhood team effort" after this tragedy, helping take care of the family, preparing food and hosting people who come to town for the funeral.

Kim Bell is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.