UNITY, Wis. (AP) -- Horse-drawn buggies, black vans and trucks with their chrome bumpers and hubcaps painted black were parked in the gravel driveway of the Oberholtzer farm. Men and boys in dark suits and white shirts gathered on the front lawn, comforting the family.
The deaths of three young sisters who suffocated after they apparently locked themselves in a homemade cedar chest while playing have drawn their tight-knit Mennonite community together.
"It was like a shock wave," said Luke Weaver, a family friend. "When you have deaths like this, a community's plans, a family's plans, everyone's plans change immediately."
Two-year-old Anne, 4-year-old Darlene and 6-year-old Karla, who died Monday, were "full of life, giggly, happy, normal little girls," Weaver said.
Their mother, Shirley Oberholtzer, and two older daughters had been canning on their farm near Unity, about 130 miles northwest of Madison, Sheriff Louis J. Rosandich said. The mother noticed the girls were missing and found them inside the chest -- about 3 feet long and 2 1/2 feet deep -- in an upstairs bedroom. They were not breathing.
The first sheriff's deputy to arrive instructed the girls' mother how to perform CPR, but the two were unable to revive the children, Rosandich said.
"You could see the shock," said the sheriff, who arrived at the farm after the girls were taken to the hospital where they were pronounced dead.
Rosandich said he was unsure how long the girls were trapped inside the chest, which could only be opened from the outside once it latched.
News of the deaths spread quickly through the Mennonite community of about 350 families. Church members gathered at the Oberholtzers' neat, white farmhouse Monday and Tuesday to mourn with the family.
A painted sign in front of the farmhouse read, "Things that grow." The family runs a fruit and vegetable stand and sells dried flower arrangements from the home, which until last year was a dairy farm. A child-size picnic table and a swing set sat empty in the yard.
Mennonites are known for their simple lifestyle and their strong commitment to community and people in need, including victims of natural disasters. There are nearly 20 Mennonite organizations in North America.
The plain-dressing Mennonites are sometimes confused with the Amish. But unlike the Amish, Mennonites mostly live and work among members of other faiths and embrace modern technology, such as telephones and automobiles.
Weaver said the Oberholtzer family is turning to faith to cope. The Oberholtzers did not wish to speak to the media, said Bishop Clair Horst, minister at Pine Grove Mennonite Church in Granton, which the family attends.
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