Pennsylvania's Amish won't ever forget what happened last fall, but they're determined not to let the tragedy define them, either
NICKEL MINES, PA.-It's now just an empty field, snow covered and shimmering on this late winter morning, betraying no hint of the tragedy that locals refer to simply as "October 2nd."
But the Lancaster County tour buses will come just the same, slowing so the curious can see where the single-room Amish schoolhouse once stood. Some even take pictures of the quiet spot where last fall a troubled local man bound and shot 10 schoolgirls, killing five, before taking his own life.
"They come to look at a bare field," says John Whiteside, president of the Bart Township Fire Company, shaking his head as he steers an emergency response truck on a grim circuit of the area where the dead girls lived. "That's the John Fisher house where Miriam lived, and there's the Ebersol house-that's where they lost Naomi Rose," he says. "That's Smucker's farm, where the emergency calls were made, and back there is the Miller place. They lost two daughters." The shooter's house is here, too, his grave just down the road.
Whiteside pauses. "Nothing will ever be the same here. It can't be." There's no arguing with that sentiment. No one will forget that awful day and its consequences. But now, almost six months later, other truths are emerging as well. Not every legacy of what happened has been bitter. And the tight-knit Amish community is refusing to let October 2nd shake its faith or alter its simpler, treasured way of life.
The world discovered tiny Nickel Mines the day Charles Roberts, 32, a non-Amish married father of three, walked into the school, ordered the boys to leave, and opened fire on the girls. The Amish families had the school and its contents bulldozed at night 10 days later, the debris buried in the local landfill.
Though residents now find their once-anonymous rural township a sightseeing stop-be it for macabre or spiritual reasons-they are beginning to rouse from the grief. The Amish schoolchildren, including four of the recovering girls, are expected to begin classes this week in a new one-room school not far from the former site. (The fifth girl remains semicomatose, according to those who know her family.) The yellow building, constructed by an Amish company and volunteers, is on a private road, within view of the Fisher and Ebersol family homes, and marked with a "no trespassing" sign. But there's no special security-no guards, no cameras.
Though the families of the victims were tolerant of the media in the aftermath of the crime, they have since avoided the press. They are determined to move on, said one community member, and see interviews now as unnecessary. But with the passage of time, says Amish businessman Ike Fisher (no relation to Miriam Fisher), they are finding comfort in the tragedy's unexpected legacy: a deepened sense of community between Amish and non-Amish residents, forged during that dark, chaotic time and illuminated by the forgiveness extended immediately by the Amish to Roberts's family, including his widow, Marie.
"It's hard for me to accept this place not being the same as it always was-we have to find a new normal," said Fisher, also a firefighter, who operates a manufactured-stone company with two sons. "But what we went through together helped bring us together."