The branches and car parts have been cleared out of Mountview Cemetery, and small U.S. flags mark the spot where headstones once stood.
An SUV tore through the northern section of the cemetery on Central Avenue early Sunday morning, wiping out 29 upstanding marble headstones along with an entrance sign before coming to a rest on its side. The destruction of the headstones has brought the attention of both the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the state's leadership in Washington, D.C.
“I can’t comment on the speed that the vehicle was going, but the distance that vehicle traveled was really unfortunate because it went through several rows of headstones,” said Mountview Cemetery Superintendent Chris Waite.
Mountview Cemetery, owned and maintained by the City of Billings, is the largest and one of the oldest cemeteries in the region. Its 65 acres serve as both a graveyard and a museum, with tours showcasing some of Billings’ most historic residents. Among the nearly 26,000 buried there, the cemetery has two sections dedicated to veterans. The SUV crashed into the northern section, where the oldest veteran graves are.
Waite said the burial dates in the section range from 1964 to 1972, but they represent those who served from WWI through the Vietnam War. Waite, who has been the superintendent for the cemetery for two years, said during that time only one veteran’s headstone needed replacing.
“And that was just due to deterioration,” he said.
After officers arrived at the crash at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, the driver had left the scene, according to an email from Billings Police Lt. Brandon Wooley. Officers found the driver, a 30-year-old man from Billings, and issued several citations. The name of the man has not been released, and the reports of the crash are still being compiled by investigators.
Outside of the staff hours dedicated to cleanup and applying for new headstones, Waite said the VA will bear the cost of their replacement. Confirming the names of all those who need a replacement will still require staff members to sort through the cemetery’s archives, looking through paperwork that Waite said hasn’t been touched in decades.
“For the application, it’s a matter of going through all of our records and providing that to the VA. … Really, we’re doing a historical investigation into everyone who needs a new headstone,” he said.
Waite said that he’s been in contact with personnel with the VA, and the department’s National Cemetery Administration, which maintains national cemeteries dedicated to veterans and provides them with the iconic marble headstone seen in Arlington National Cemetery or at the nearby Little Bighorn Battlefield.
In a letter dated Sept. 21, Sen. Jon Tester asked the undersecretary for memorial affairs at the VA to assist in gathering all of the required information for the 29 shattered stones. Although Tester wrote that 32 headstones needed replacing, Waite said that number has since dropped after another assessment of the damage.
“They represent the final resting ground of those who honorably served our country, and they must be restored as quickly as possible,” Tester wrote.
Any family members of those buried in the section where the SUV crashed can contact Mountview Cemetery to confirm whether their kin are one of the 29. Although individual applications can be submitted, Waite asked that all those who need a new headstone allow the cemetery’s staff to handle the process to avoid sending duplicates to the VA.
Waite said Mountview Cemetery staff have a goal of submitting all of the applications to the VA by Friday. Although he does not have a timeline in mind for when the new headstones will be installed, he hopes to see them back over the veterans that they honor by spring.
In 2009, a Chevy pickup driven by a 17-year-old crashed into the cemetery and destroyed four headstones that had been set over a century prior. The cost of the damage was estimated at $60,000 to $70,000.