Subscribe for 99¢

KAHOKA, Mo. • Anna Eicher survived a highway pileup that killed her father and two others and left more than a dozen people injured, a crash triggered by a trucker who was distracted by his cell phone.

After four days in a hospital recovering from her injuries in the 2008 crash, Eicher returned to this Amish community in northeast Missouri to bury her father, then did what any good woman of her faith would do.

She forgave the trucker and refused to sue.

The crash was God's will, she says, and using the courts is not the Amish way.

"We don't believe in taking advantage of someone and taking their money," she says.

So, she ignored the glitzy packets arriving in the mail from lawyers urging her to file a wrongful death suit.

She didn't worry about the medical bills that were piling up from her own injuries - she was confident the trucking company would take care of them. Soon after the crash, a man from the trucking company's insurer told her to send him all the bills.

"English people told us not to worry about it, they would be paid," Eicher said, using the term the Amish bestow on outsiders. "We assumed they were paid."

Then, this fall, the same bills started up again. One letter seemed particularly menacing, printed on bright fuchsia paper.

Pay up, the letters said.

She owes $23,273 to the hospital and $2,360 to a radiology group. She can't see her chiropractor anymore because the insurance company just rejected $6,624 billed since the crash.

The insurance money has run out.

In all, the crash on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) near Interstate 270 on July 15, 2008, killed three people and injured 15. The trucking firm carried only $1 million in liability coverage per accident, as is standard in the interstate trucking industry.

And while Eicher was back home among the Amish, lawyers for the other victims - the non-Amish victims - were busy in various courts, filing lawsuits, winning judgments and fighting over this finite pot of cash.

There isn't enough for all the victims who sued, much less for the Amish, who didn't. That left Eicher, 60, sitting at her kitchen table earlier this month, leafing through a stack of bills 2 inches thick.

"If I had the money, I'd go ahead and pay it," she said with her head down, a bit embarrassed. "We didn't know."

In the modern world, the aftermath of the crash ended, so predictably, in courtroom battles and insurance claims. In the world of the Old Order Amish, with its wide-brimmed hats and horse-drawn buggies, members spurn electricity, cars, telephones - and the courts.

A WORLD APART

The Amish believe in simplicity and nonresistance. They value community and separation from the wider world.

The Eicher family's weathered farmhouse, off a winding gravel road near Highway 136, has an outhouse but no indoor bathroom, no electricity, no carpeting. The Eichers have a windup clock and a wood stove. A shed houses welding tools.

The other 21 Amish families in Kahoka, about 180 miles from St. Louis, live the same way.

They don't have telephones in their houses because they don't want the intrusion of the outside world in their homes. A communal shack is equipped with a phone the Amish use for emergencies.

They have no mirrors in the main rooms, no photographs of any people. They refuse to have their photos taken because the Second Commandment prohibits "graven images."

Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author of "The Riddle of Amish Culture" and a dozen other books on the Amish, said Amish religious beliefs are rooted in the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.

"They believe they should love their enemies and not retaliate," Kraybill said. "They're conscientious objectors and they don't file lawsuits or use force to get their way."

They can be excommunicated if they do.

And while they don't drive cars and opt instead for horse-drawn buggies, they do ride in cars driven by non-Amish. That was the case on July 15, 2008 - the reason Eicher and five other Amish residents of northeast Missouri found themselves caught in a St. Louis County traffic jam on that summer afternoon.

Eicher's friend, a midwife who delivered most of Eicher's 13 children, had died in Tennessee. Eicher, her father, her cousin and three other Amish wanted to attend the funeral. They decided to pool their resources to hire a driver for about 50 cents a mile for the long trip to Tennessee. They piled into the van, the women wearing their black Sunday dresses, bonnets and black stockings in the July heat, and headed south.

They reached the traffic jam on eastbound Highway 40 as they prepared to take Interstate 270 to the south, and their 1991 Plymouth Voyager slowed to a stop about 3:45.

‘I COULDN'T SCREAM'

Approaching from behind was Jeffrey Knight, 49, driving a 2005 Freightliner loaded with 13 tons of scrap metal. Knight, of Muscle Shoals, Ala., already had been on duty more than 86 hours in an eight-day period - 16 hours longer than federal law allowed, court records show. He'd been cited 41 times in three years for falsifying logbooks or similar violations, according to court records.

As he barreled east on Highway 40, passing Mason Road toward Interstate 270, he would have had a clear view of the stopped traffic, but he told police he didn't see it because he had reached across the dash for his cell phone and flipped it open. Black box information from Knight's truck showed he was traveling 65 mph before the crash, and he didn't slow down until ramming into traffic.

"After I hit the first car, I just remember holding the steering wheel and seeing cars going to my left and right," Knight said, according to a highway patrol report.

Killed instantly in the crash was Charles "Keith" Cason, 55, of Caseyville, whose Audi was hit first. Knight's Freightliner then hit a vehicle driven by Mark Tiburzi, 52, of St. Peters. The collision spun Tiburzi's vehicle, which stuck to the front of Knight's truck and was used as a battering ram to hit eight other vehicles, including the van carrying the Amish.

"I don't remember the first jolt," Eicher said. "The next thing I knew, I was upside down and I heard Susan (Borntreger, an Amish friend in the van) groan. My head was out the window. The gas was running on the ground. I tried to get my breath but I couldn't scream."

Eicher was pinned inside the van, face down. She had one leg over the front seat and the other leg sprawled behind her, trapped between the seat and door. She was hanging upside down until rescuers cut the vehicle apart to free her.

"When I smelled all that gas, I thought it would blow up," she said. "I thought my end was near."

She spent four days in the hospital with multiple bruises but no broken bones. Her doctor said she suffered whiplash that resulted in soft-tissue damaged, affecting nerves.

"I had leg and arm pain for a long time," she said. "Then my hands just went numb."

Eicher's cousin, Lydia Miller, 55, of Canton, Mo., was killed instantly. Eicher's father, Alvin Mast, 88, died at a hospital.

Tiburzi was the most severely injured. The crash left him under constant care in a nursing home, unable to walk or talk, according to his lawyer and court filings.

The Missouri Highway Patrol said Knight's 25 to 30 seconds of inattention caused the crash. Knight pleaded guilty in April 2010 to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and walked free the next day after a sentence of time he'd already served awaiting trial  - 371 days in jail.

This wasn’t the first time Anna Eicher’s family was involved in a deadly crash with an inattentive truck driver. On Sept. 15, 2007, two of her grandchildren, ages 3 and 6, and her pregnant daughter-in-law were killed. A trucker driving erratically on Highway 61 in Lewis County hit the back of a horse-drawn buggy being driven by Anna Eicher's son, Jacob Eicher, according to a Missouri State Highway Patrol report. The trucking company in that case took responsibility and paid the hospital bills for Jacob Eicher and his surviving son, and bought the family a new horse and buggy.

A RACE FOR THE MONEY

After the Highway 40 crash, suits were filed in state and federal court by most of the victims. The hospitals and workers' compensation filed claims against the insurance policy to get repaid. But they were all competing for the same $1 million pot of liability insurance carried by Holmes Transport, the trucking company.

Lawyers say Holmes Transport wasn't big enough to go after its assets. The company folded by the end of 2008, and its president started a new company doing the same type of work. He declined to comment for this story. Lawyers for the trucking company and the insurance company, Occidental Fire & Casualty Co., also declined to comment.

The family of Cason, the only non-Amish person killed, won damages in U.S. District Court in Illinois of more than $6 million. Tiburzi, who suffered brain damage, and his wife won an $18 million verdict in St. Louis County. David Jayne of Kirkwood, who suffered broken bones and other serious injuries, won a jury trial and a verdict of $700,000. Other victims, including the driver for the Amish, won smaller awards.

But getting the money was the next fight because the pot was so small. After various court maneuvers, a lawyer for the Tiburzis won out. On April 1, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Carolyn Whittington ordered that the $1 million go to them.

Jayne's attorney has appealed, and the insurance company had to put up $750,000 in case he wins on appeal. Oral arguments are scheduled for January.

What about the other victims? They might see nothing. Some might have had workers' compensation pay claims, and others might have had underinsured motorist coverage on their own insurance policies.

But not the Amish, who shoulder their bills themselves or rely on their own community to help pay.

‘IT WAS GOD'S WILL'

Levi Miller, an Amish man from Canton whose wife, Lydia, was killed, was seated in the van behind his wife. He suffered seven fractured vertebrae in his back and a broken left shoulder blade. He used to work in a saw mill but the crash kept him out of work for three months. He never returned to the mill.

Miller, 58, said he would never consider a wrongful death suit over his wife's death or any legal action to force the trucking company to pay.

"I feel this way: It was God's will," he said. "No amount of money would have brought my wife back."

Lawsuits just aren't the Amish way, he said.

"I'd rather lose everything I had than sue him," Miller said. "I've heard about people suing for the little things, and it's ridiculous what people do for money."

Little by little, Miller has chipped away at his medical bills. They started off as high as $30,000, but he filled out paperwork with the hospital showing his meager income and it reduced the bills.

He set up payment plans and has paid more than $6,000. He's now paying $100 a month and hopes to have it paid off by May.

In a message repeated over and over by the Amish, Miller says he forgives the truck driver.

"I hold nothing against him," he said. "He could've paid better attention."

CRASH REMINDERS

Unlike Miller, who had a little income coming from his farm, Eicher says her only source of income has dried up. Her husband, Henry Eicher, 63, was working a construction job this summer when he fell off a roof and broke five ribs. Doctors put a plate in his left wrist. He doesn't know when he can return to work.

Amish communities often combine forces to help pay staggering bills. But this community is smaller and poorer than many, and the Kahoka Amish have already committed to help Henry Miller repay his $10,000-plus in medical bills.

Her own medical bills aren't Eicher's only reminders of the crash. Her hands are still numb, and Eicher says she can't work in the garden. She can't stand for long periods or look down while peeling potatoes without feeling pain in her back. She sometimes uses a walker borrowed from a neighbor.

The chiropractor helped, before insurance refused the bills and Eicher stopped going.

A non-Amish friend of the Eicher family, Dan Gilliam of Bruceton, Tenn., drove seven hours to Kahoka earlier this month to help Eicher navigate the bureaucratic mess she was facing. Instead of walking to the Amish phone shack to make telephone calls, Gilliam brought a cell phone with him and planted himself at the Eichers' kitchen table to make the calls.

The hospital, insurance adjustor and trucker's attorney all told them the trucker's insurance had run out. That there was no money left to cover her bills.

Is there anything she can do? Gilliam asked on speakerphone, so Eicher could hear both sides of the conversation.

A trucking company lawyer said he didn't think so. There just wasn't enough money for all the claims made, he said.

Gilliam hung up and fumed.

"They're constantly being victimized," Gilliam said of the Amish. "People are taking advantage of them because they won't sue. It's hard to understand this mindset (of the Amish) of forgive and bear the burden, but it's just awful that they have to."

Eicher excused herself from the table and rejoined her family, a swirl of activity around her. One of Eicher's nine sons, Amos Eicher, 24, stood in the doorway discussing planned work on his late grandfather's home down the hill. Amos Eicher, who has the start of a traditional Amish beard signaling his status as a newlywed, was on hand to take part in "frolic," an Amish work party like a barn-raising, at his grandfather's home.

Eicher needed to take food to the young men, so she put the stack of bills aside, adjusted her bonnet and walked slowly toward the door.

She said she doesn't know what she'll do next about her debts. She is trying not to worry.

"Like I tell my boys ... why do you want to live in a grudge?" she said. "Just supposing I would have died. You surely want to try and be at peace if you can."

 

EDITORS NOTE: The article generated numerous emails and phone calls from readers wanting to know how they could help. On Monday afternoon, a family friend of the Eichers established a fund at a bank in Kahoka, Mo., with the plan that any contributions would go toward helping pay medical bills of the Amish victims of the Highway 40 crash. Donations could be sent to: Amish Accident Fund, c/o Kahoka State Bank, P.O. Box 168, Kahoka, MO 63445

3 O'Clock Stir e-newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.