Volleyball team joins cleanup volunteers after cemetery wreck in St. John on Friday

Jennifer Stultz
Pratt Tribune
Volunteers from the community of St. John gather at Fairview Park Cemetery on Friday morning to clean up the aftermath of a semi-truck and trailer that crashed into more than 10 headstones  after breaking through brick pilars and gates on Thursday.
A semi truck and trailer sits in the Fairview Cemetery after it drifted off of U. S. Highway 281 on Thursday near St. John and crashed into a cemetery.
Broken brick pilars and headstones were scattered at the entrance of the Fairview Park Cemetery on Thursday after a semi-truck drifted off the roadway.
A clean-up crew of volunteers got to work Friday at the cemetery near St. John to fix damage from a truck accident there on Thursday.
Many hands make light work takes reality Friday in St. John.

According to Kansas Highway Patrol reports, Eugene Dennis, 60, of Wichita, may have blacked out while driving north on U.S. Highway 281 on Thursday, August 5 near St. John, causing him to drift off the roadway and crash into the Fairview Cemetery.

"The semi knocked down about eight of those brick pilars that hold up the gates and damaged or hit 11 grave markers," said Mitch Minnis, local owner of the Minnis Chapel of St. John. "Most of the headstones damaged were from the early 1800s, just north of the center gates."

Dennis, who was taken to nearby Stafford County Hospital with suspected serious injury, was driving a red Freightliner and pulling a 2005 Polar trailer with a Wisconsin tag. The semi-truck and trailer were removed from the accident scene by Doonan's Tow Service.

A surprise group of volunteers showed up at the cemetery on Friday morning to remove the debris from the wreck and cleanup the damaged headstones.

"We had at least 25 kids, plus all the members of the St. John High School volleyball team and their coach, Trish Wade, show up here to clean up," Minnis said. "That was just tremendous. It was really nice to see the community come together over this."

Volunteers picked up gravel and rocks from the grassy areas near the damaged headstones and rolled the larger concrete pieces and broken brick pilars into loader buckets. Dump trucks hauled away the debris.

Minnis said the local Fairview Park and Cemetery Board would meet to make a decision in the near future on who and how to rebuild the exterior barriers, but there would not be any expense to families of those whose headstones had been damaged.

"It's likely that there aren't any family members related to those buried in this area," he said. "These are pretty old markers."

Minnis said this was not the first time a vehicle from the highway had drifted off the road and into the cemetery. A car slid off in an ice storm several years ago, damaging the front area of gates and pilars leading into the cemetery, he said.

Local St. John photographer Dick Smith was on the scene of the accident Thursday, then again Friday morning when cleanup began.

"Today, my small town pride is swelling because these volunteers (Jack Davis, Mitch Minnis, Denis Paige, the high school girls' volleyball team, Trish Wade, Taci Axman, Sara Fisher, Vance Fisher and a few others) were out there this morning cleaning up our cemetery," Smith said. "I am so proud of our small town community pride. Bless you all."