10 years after Nickel Mines school killings, the work of grief remains

Oct 3, 2016 by and

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BART TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The West Nickel Mines School is long gone. Two of the survivors are now married. Several of the couples who lost their daughters have had more children.

The shooting 10 years ago in a placid Lancaster County hamlet made headlines across the world as the Amish rushed to forgive the shooter. But the grief and pain live on.

Amish community members work on Oct. 9, 2006, at the scene of the one-room schoolhouse shootings on Oct. 2, 2006, that left five wounded and five dead in Nickel Mines, near Lancaster, Pa. The schoolhouse was demolished in 2007. — Tim Shaffer/Reuters

Amish community members work on Oct. 9, 2006, at the scene of the one-room schoolhouse shootings on Oct. 2, 2006, that left five wounded and five dead in Nickel Mines, near Lancaster, Pa. The schoolhouse was demolished in 2007. — Tim Shaffer/Reuters

On Oct. 2, 2006, a heavily armed milk truck driver, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst into the West Nickel Mines School shortly after recess. By the time Roberts had committed suicide, less than an hour later, five girls aged 6-13 were dead, and five others severely wounded.

Before the slaughter, Roberts allowed the boys, several visiting adults, and the teacher to leave: It was the teacher who raced to a neighboring home to ask a local farmer to call the police.

Though there had already been numerous school shootings that year, the invasion of a publicity-shy community committed to nonviolence, and the remarkable swiftness with which the Amish offered forgiveness to the killer’s widow and family, drew international attention.

Thousands of condolence letters poured in. So did more tangible assistance, including $4 million from funds established for medical care for the girls who survived. One remains at home, her injuries grave enough to confine her to a wheelchair.

Though the Amish generally do not accept charity, the medical expenses associated with treating survivors would have been unsustainable without such help.

The New Hope school has replaced the old schoolhouse, which was razed soon after the tragedy.

The children’s teacher has married and left the profession.

“All the families talk about living with the new normal, which means making a place for the grief and pain,” said Herman Bontrager, a businessman and longtime friend of the local Amish community who became their representative in the days after the massacre. “They all think of living their way through the tragedy, not getting over it.”

‘Natural’ forgiveness

Terri Roberts, mother of Charles Roberts, has written Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, a Mother’s Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace, explaining her search for healing and documenting the generous response of the Amish community. The shooter’s wife, Marie Monville, who has since remarried, has also written a book, One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting.

But as Bontrager makes clear, the Amish understand forgiveness, and a determination not to seek revenge, as a natural response to faith teachings.

“The Amish aren’t all perfect,” Bontrager said. “The first thing they tell me is that they are human, just like everyone else. But they have led the way in this sense: they showed that a 500-year-old subculture has been able, for a long time, to hold on to nonviolence and nonresistance. It takes practice and discipline.”

“Simply stated, the Lord’s Prayer as it is taught is very important to us,” said a local Amish church leader who has walked alongside the families since that horrific first day.

Nicki Weisensee Egan, a senior writer for People magazine who covered the Nickel Mines shootings, said the nation was captivated by the Amish gesture of forgiveness.

“The way that they were able to [reach out to the killer’s family] so quickly and hold on to their faith captured people’s hearts, including mine,” she said. “I think it’s extraordinary.”

As they grieved, the Amish community in Lancaster continued normal pursuits: farming, construction and crafts.

“The best counseling was from the families who had girls pass away, when we all got together,” said one father who lost his 12-year-old daughter in the schoolhouse shootings but asked that his name not be published. “We did that a lot.”

Amish couples have traveled to towns affected by other school shootings, including Newtown, Conn., and Blacksburg, Va., the sites of two other mass shootings. “We’ve reached out, and that was always a blessing,” said the father. “The best general message I could give to anyone is to actively seek God’s help, because faith is very important.”

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