A Minneapolis couple and their three young children were killed in a collision in Nebraska on their way to a final round of training before moving to Japan to work as Christian missionaries.

Jamison and Kathryne Pals, both 29, died along with their children when a semitrailer truck rear-ended their minivan just before noon Sunday on Interstate 80 in a construction zone near Brule. Three-year-old Ezra, 23-month-old Violet and 2-month-old Calvin died at the scene with their parents.

The force of the impact pushed the family's van into three other westbound vehicles. Both the van and the truck burst into flames.

The truck driver, Tony A. Weekly, 53, of Baker, Fla., was treated at the Sedgewick County Hospital in Julesburg, Colo., and released. He was then taken to the Keith County jail in Ogallala, Neb., and booked on five felony counts of vehicular homicide.

The couple — who met at the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, an evangelical Christian college in Roseville — in recent months had sold most of their belongings in preparation for the move, which was expected to happen in late October.

"They were just going to travel with one big backpack for each of them," said Kathy Pals, Jamison's mother, who lives in Hugo with his father, Rick.

The young family had been planning the move for a couple of years and made multiple treks to Littleton, Colo., for training with WorldVenture, a Christian mission agency. They tracked their preparations on a blog called joyofjapan.org, where they wrote expansively about their faith and family.

"We want Jesus Christ for Japan. That's what 'the joy of Japan' really means," Jamison wrote.

The couple blogged about how they had met and had dated on and off, became best friends and decided to marry. A point of hesitation in the relationship was Kathryne's uncertainty about the missionary work that so strongly called to Jamison for almost a decade.

Kathryne, the fifth of Gordon and Nancy Engel's six children, graduated from West Lutheran High School in Plymouth. Pals, the third of four sons, graduated in 2005 from Centennial High School in Circle Pines.

In shock on Monday, both sides of the family said their faith held them. "When we grieve, we know that we have hope to see them again," Nancy Engel said.

Kathy Pals said she'd been told that Weekly had been distracted before the crash, which occurred in a construction zone. She was saddened to hear that he had been charged, saying that it would be hard enough for him to live with he'd done.

'Selfless people'

Jamison's mother said he was always interested in the downtrodden, and spent his first summer out of high school living on the streets in Minneapolis. She worried about him and called his cellphone often, which didn't please him.

"He said, 'Mom, this isn't going to work if you keep calling me,' " she said, laughing at the recollection.

Gordon Engel said that when his future son-in-law sought his blessing to propose marriage, he added, "I want you to know I feel God is calling us on a mission field in Japan."

Until April, when he left to focus on fundraising for the mission trip, Jamison had been a grant writer for four years at Feed My Starving Children, a Christian nonprofit that packs meals for malnourished children in 70 countries.

Andy Carr, vice president at the Twin Cities-based nonprofit, worked with Pals for the past three years. He said Jamison was a levelheaded person who treated everyone as special.

Jamison and Kathryne were the "most selfless people you would ever want to meet," Carr said.

Kathryne, a self-described introvert, earned a degree in early education and had always dreamed of being a mom. Both sets of grandparents had expected the couple to have many more children.

On the blog, Kathryne wrote that she felt overwhelmed by the prospect of leading others to Christianity. She wrote that she came to embrace her weakness.

"You can be a mom anywhere in the world. Why not be a mom living among other moms who don't yet know Jesus? Why not raise children who make friends with other children who've never heard the gospel before?" she asked.

Kathy Pals said her daughter-in-law intended to teach English to preschoolers in Japan.

The couple raised money over the past couple of years and took training trips to Colorado. They worshiped at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

After moving out of their house in Minneapolis several months ago, the young family lived with her parents in Wayzata, where Kathryne grew up. "We were extremely blessed to have them with us for that time," Gordon Engel said.

Engel and his wife said the young kids were always happy and the family worshiped together every night, reading from the Bible and singing.

The family spent their final night with relatives in Orange City, Iowa, where Rick Pals grew up. Kathy Pals was there and remembered how Jamison called out to Ezra for dinner while the toddler played on a tractor. She recalled the little boy telling his dad he wasn't ready to eat: "I'm not done farming yet."

Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson