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."
As spring arrives in Bart Township, there are few if any lingering questions of "why?" or "why here?" And no one believes that the urbanization of Lancaster County-which is squeezing an Amish population that doubles every two decades-played a role in the shooting. The killer was local-"not someone drugged out from Philly or Baltimore or New York," said the Rev. Kristine Hileman, a local Presbyterian minister. Many of the Amish knew Roberts, a milk truck driver.
The school was simply the scene of a troubled man's crime-the girls weren't targeted because they were Amish, said Herman Bontrager, spokesman for the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, established by Amish church leaders to manage the nearly $4 million in donations that have poured in. "This is where he lived, and it happened."
Yet it's precisely where the crime occurred, as well as the mysteries of the Amish faith and its tradition of forgiveness, that transfixed the world. On the day of the shooting, Amish expert Donald Kraybill of nearby Elizabethtown College and three colleagues answered reporters' calls for eight straight hours. The journalists mostly wanted to know how the community could so quickly forgive such a crime.
Lessons. The forgiveness here "wasn't an aberration," Kraybill said during a recent interview. "To a person, the Amish would argue that forgiveness is the central teaching of Jesus. They will take you to the Lord's Prayer-if you don't forgive, you won't be forgiven."
Those lessons are particularly potent in a place like Nickel Mines, which lies in an area known as "over the ridge"-literally over a mine ridge south of the Route 30 tourist corridor, where shops like "Amish Stuff Etc." and "AAA Buggy Rides" cater to visitors who come to tour Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Here, there are no Best Westerns, smorgasbord restaurants, or subdivisions gobbling farmland. And though nearly 70 percent of Lancaster County Amish no longer earn their living on a farm-many make furniture, gazebos, and sheds-south of the ridge more than half are still engaged in agriculture. Here the Amish culture is more conservative, and church leaders are typically stricter about enforcing the plain sect traditions of Old Order Amish, including limiting ownership of modern conveniences. There is strong reliance on the lessons of the Martyrs Mirror, published in the 1600s and filled with stories about Christian and Dutch Anabaptist martyrs. The most famous involves a fleeing Christian prisoner who saves a pursuing guard from drowning, only to be turned in by the guard and burned at the stake.
The stories in many ways form the basis of beliefs of the Amish, who in 1693 emerged as a distinct group from the Anabaptists, seen by breakaway members as becoming too assimilated with broader society and the outside world.
"I can't overestimate [these stories] in terms of Amish culture," said Kraybill, who with two Anabaptist scholars is writing a book, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, about the Nickel Mines murders and other incidents of Amish forgiveness-including one that occurred not far from the school just days before the girls were shot.
Emanuel King, 12, was hit by a car and killed while riding his push scooter. His family invited the driver, who had fallen asleep at the wheel, to their home to forgive her. "She came back for the viewing. She came back for the funeral," says Kraybill, choking up at the retelling.
Hard work. Karie Mitchell, charged with vehicular homicide, was scheduled to be arraigned March 28. But prosecutors should know not to expect the Amish to appear in court, says Curt Woerth. Woerth, Bart Township fire chief, says the Amish-who make up 60 percent of his company's volunteers-typically won't get involved in the legal system, in the same way they do not accept government assistance, including Social Security.
But both Kraybill and Bontrager of the accountability committee bristle at suggestions that the Amish are stoic, repressing feelings to conform to church expectations. "There's nothing miraculous about forgiveness-it's hard work," said Bontrager. At meetings of the accountability committee, which includes Amish deacons, he said, there has been a lot of weeping among grown men.
"One of them once said that on the previous day he had to start all over on this forgiveness thing," Bontrager said. And the process is not always perfect. Hileman, the Presbyterian minister, said she knows two people who say they were treated badly by Amish employers after the shooting-mainly because they were non-Amish, or "English," as the Amish refer to those not of their faith.
"The Amish are like anyone else-some take the forgiveness of Christ and pass it on to others and some don't," she said. "I think the Amish have reached out to [Roberts's widow] with love, but there are hypocrites in every religion of the world."
Still, said Hileman, who knows Marie Roberts through a women's prayer group, "they set an example that caused me, a Presbyterian minister, to examine my own life and ask, "Who haven't I forgiven?"
On the day of the shooting, the township firehouse became, by necessity, the response center. Dispatch and communications operations were created. Volunteers served as many as 900 meals twice a day to people who helped with traffic management, the press, local families, and those who just needed refuge. Bank accounts were established for donations to the victims, their families, and, at the insistence of the Amish, the Roberts family.
And for the months that followed, volunteers at the firehouse sorted through the avalanche of stuffed animals, quilts, money, afghans, cards, and letters-some simply addressed to "Amish Families, USA"-that arrived. "When you went down there in those first days," Bontrager said, "if it wouldn't have been for dress, you would not have known there were different cultures working there. In that sense, it was a wonderful experience."
Pennsylvania State Police Chief Col. Jeffrey Miller, who was on the scene the day of the shooting, said that he hoped the children did not die in vain: "I hope that people everywhere remember the example set by the Amish community and [will] be less confrontational in their own lives."
Recently, Whiteside and Woerth pulled out a photograph showing local Amish schoolboys during a visit , dressed up in firefighting gear, the long pants puddling at their feet. "We took them on firetruck rides-we broke every rule that day," Woerth said with a wide smile.
Ten days after Whiteside's sad tour of Nickel Mines, the snow is now almost gone, revealing the thick black mud that testifies to the richness of the soil. And the Bart Township firehouse is again teeming with people. But on this spectacular day, thousands have turned out for the social event of the year-the fire company's 43rd annual fundraising Mud Sale, a day when everything from horses to manure pumps will be auctioned, and the engine bays are filled with bidders who want to take home a local quilt.
The Amish community is out in force, turning the grounds into a sea of blue and black punctuated by the golden straw hats worn by the men and boys. Rows of buggies in the distinct Lancaster blue-gray wait for the auctioneer's call, and groups of boys in mud-spattered rubber boots stand shoulder to shoulder, transfixed by the offerings at a candy stand. Though well before noon, the lines at the french fry and soft-pretzel stands are already a dozen deep.
Just outside the firehouse, Fisher, cochair of the event, stands in the warm sun and revels in the day. "It does my heart good," he says, "knowing that the Amish and non-Amish can all come together and have good relations."
Mike Hoover, the township's quick response services director, who was instrumental in the days after the shooting, is working the public address system. "This is an event that brings back some normalcy," he says, before turning back to the microphone.
It's a different normal, to be sure. But for the people of Bart Township-Amish or not-it's an encouraging start.
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.