DAYTON, Tenn. — In the chapel at Fort Bluff Youth Camp, Monique Einwechter walked to the wooden, cross-shaped lectern. Around the its top hung the headband Einwechter's 3-year-old daughter wore as the flower girl at a wedding about a week ago.
"Thank you all for being here," she said to a crowd of about 200. "I'm still recovering from pneumonia. So if I get short of breath or I can't make it all the way through, I apologize."
Five nights earlier, on Monday, Einwechter crashed her Ford Expedition into the pond on her parents' property in eastern Bledsoe County. Family members saved Einwechter, 2-year-old Jonathan David and 1-year-old Titus. But they couldn't reach 3-year-old Elise or 6-week-old Enoch in time.
The family held a memorial service for the lost children Saturday. They wanted to honor the emergency responders who helped save three lives. They also wanted to share their faith, explain how God empowers them in the most devastating moments.
And they wanted to explain what happened in the 20 minutes that separated life from death Monday. In front of relatives, friends and emergency responders, Einwechter reflected publicly on the events for the first time.
Traveling a narrow stretch of her parents' driveway, Einwechter steered the SUV too far to the right. The Expedition slid down an embankment and rolled, its passenger side landing in the water. The children screamed. Einwechter slammed the car horn, hoping her husband, father and brothers would find her in the dark.
"It's going to be OK," she told her four children. "Don't worry. It's going to be all right. Just hold on."
Her husband, Jonathan, and one of her brothers managed to pull two children out of the vehicle and carry them to safety. The plan was to return and get the others. Einwechter turned to her daughter.
"Mommy," Elise said, "I'm going to drown."
"No, you're not," Einwechter told the 3-year-old. "We're going to get you out."
But the Expedition rolled again, this time landing with the roof in the water. They were deeper into the pond now. Einwechter couldn't see Elise or Enoch.
"I was trying to find their seat belts," she told the crowd. "Every time I moved, I bumped into something. I couldn't find the way. It was so dark."
Einwechter tried to hold her breath, but eventually she began gasping, swallowing water. She stayed under for about five minutes, her family estimates, before someone found her and pulled her out. Her brother performed CPR and revived her.
But the family couldn't find Elise or Enoch until it was too late. During the memorial, Jonathan's father, Bill, a pastor, gave a sermon. Other family members spoke, reiterating what they have said all week: They find solace in their faith. Monique and Jonathan Einwechter had just arrived in Dayton about nine hours before the crash. They came to stay with Monique's parents as they prepared for lives as missionaries in South Sudan.
God has provided the Einwechters with a different perspective, they said Saturday. It was God who called their children home, not a freak accident. And it was God who spared the lives of two other children.
"God is just," Monique Einwechter said Saturday. "I cannot make up my idea of who God is. I cannot determine what is good. That is his job, not mine."
But, she added, that is not to say she is immune to pain, that somehow she can ward off all grief. As they spoke Saturday, Monique and Jonathan often trailed off, their voices wavering. Sometimes, they stopped for a moment.
And in those moments, the silence was pierced only by the sounds of other babies in the back of the room, crying and calling, "Mama," as their mothers held them, shushed them, bounced them.
As he spoke, Jonathan thanked many in the audience. To those who helped on the scene, thank you. To those who have called to check in, thank you. And to those who are still praying for the family, thank you.
But, he said, "Don't pity us as people with no hope."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.