MANTON, Mich. (WOOD) — A wagon bearing two small caskets covered in tarp rounded the corner, leading a funeral procession for two young Amish children just outside the small town of Manton, north of Cadillac.
A line of Amish buggies stretched behind the caskets for at least a half mile, slowly cresting a hill before crossing the intersection where the children had died just three days earlier.
“It’s a difficult time,” Loyal Gingerich, pastor of the Manton Amish Church, told Target 8.
The crash is raising new questions about buggy safety in Michigan.
“We are always mindful that we share the road with automobiles as we drive our horse and buggies up and down the road,” Gingerich said. “We appreciate very much our friends driving automobiles, their carefulness, and likewise, we do the same.”
Sheriff’s deputies said the buggy — a two-wheeled, open-air cart — pulled into the path of a car driven by a man who lived nearby.
“We don’t know for sure, but we’re thinking the pony lurched (into) the intersection, was spooked or something,” Gingerich said.
The crash killed 11-year-old Rachel Miller, who was driving the rig, and her 7-year-old brother, Samuel.
Their 9-year-old sister, Hannah, is recovering at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.
“It is very difficult for the parents, the loss of these two children, and yet I believe they feel God’s love as they walk through this,” Gingerich said.
In the last decade, state police figures show Amish buggies have been involved in more than 300 crashes across Michigan, killing 21 members of the community. That includes at least 10 children, according to a review of news reports.
A buggy crash in Eaton County in 2019 killed three Amish children. The driver of the car said he didn’t see the buggy until it was too late.
That led some Michigan lawmakers to propose buggy safety laws — including registering buggies and requiring front lights and taillights. They failed to get support.
It appeared that most, if not all, of the buggies at Thursday’s funeral were equipped with at least taillights.
“That’s our goal, is to take safety precautions as we go on the road, with lights,” Gingerich said. “We’re all lighted, and also these children had safety vests on when they were hit.”
State Rep. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington, who proposed the 2019 buggy legislation, said Monday’s crash could renew that safety push. He said he has already spoken to other northern Michigan lawmakers about it.
But he said it’s too early to say whether age limits for buggy drivers would be part of that.
“Ultimately, safety on our roads is the most important thing and I believe that this was an issue we addressed four years ago, it failed, and I think it’s time we look at it again,” VanderWall said.
The Amish pastor said it’s not unusual for middle-school-aged children to drive rigs to school.
“This was the first term that this family’s children were driving themselves to school. They had two miles to the little country school, and they were within a half a mile to the schoolhouse when this happened,” he said.
Michigan has one of the fastest-growing Amish populations in the U.S., with an estimated 16,000 in the state.
In West Michigan, Amish have settled in Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Mecosta, Montcalm, Newaygo, Wexford, VanBuren and St. Joseph counties. The largest single settlement in the state is in Centreville in St. Joseph County, with 1,900 people.
About 240 are scattered through the Manton settlement in Wexford County.
“People around here in Manton and the surrounding area do know that there’s a lot of Amish people here, and we take vigilance in watching out for them,” said Manton City Councilmember Lisa Gillett as she stood along the funeral procession. “People just need to watch the signs on the roads that have the horse and buggy. Horses are unpredictable. They spook at anything, they can bolt at any time, so we just need to pay attention more.”
On Wednesday, the driver of the car that hit the cart showed up for visitation.
“We’ve been at his house, spoke with him, just assured him that the family and no one in the community holds any grudges (against) him,” Gingerich said. “We understand that he was not at fault, and it’s very difficult for him.”
On Thursday, as many as 600 people, mostly Amish, gathered for the funeral at the children’s home. Some came by chartered buses and vans from as far away as southern Ohio.
“It’s overwhelming the outreach of the community at large through this difficult time,” the pastor said. “This was not in our plans when this happened Monday morning, but it was in God’s plans.”
Later, many gathered on a small hill under pine trees behind the school to bury the children, boys and bearded men taking turns digging side-by-side graves by hand as men sang with low voices.
They left behind two markers at the head of a mound of dirt — the children’s names handwritten on planks of cedar.
Samuel died on his 7th birthday.
“After the accident, I have heard someone make the comment that Samuel probably got his best birthday gift ever, which is eternal life. Heaven,” the pastor said.