Pa. Amish community prepares to bury school shooting victims, urges forgiveness for gunman

Thursday, October 5th 2006, 6:18 am
By: News On 6

GEORGETOWN, Pa. (AP) _ Horse-drawn buggies glided past roadblocks Thursday morning as Amish families gathered to bury four of the five young girls who were gunned down inside their tiny rural schoolhouse.

All roads leading into the village of Nickel Mines, where a milk truck driver had taken the children hostage and killed them, were blocked off for the funerals.

Their Amish families asked for privacy as scores of mourners prayed at the girls' homes before taking the bodies to a hilltop cemetery and burying Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7; Marian Fisher, 13; and sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Miller, 7.

The funeral for a fifth girl, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, was scheduled for Friday.

Five survivors of the schoolhouse attack continued to fight their injuries Thursday, at least four of them still hospitalized.

County coroner G. Gary Kirchner said he had been contacted by a doctor at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey who said doctors expected to take one girl off life support so she could be brought home. Dr. D. Holmes Morton, who runs a clinic that serves Amish children, said Thursday that the reports that a 6-year-old had been taken off life-support and taken home to die were accurate ``as far as I know.''

``I just think at this point mostly these families want to be left alone in their grief and we ought to respect that,'' Morton said.

National mourning of similar tragedies, such as the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, has been enabled in part by media coverage _ something the Amish generally shun.

In Lancaster County, there have been prayer services for the Amish school shooting victims at area churches, but the traditional funerals for the girls were closed. About 300 to 500 people were expected at each, said funeral director Philip W. Furman.

Amish custom calls for simple wooden caskets, narrow at the head and feet and wider in the middle. An Amish girl is typically laid to rest in a white dress, a cape, and a white prayer-covering on her head, Furman said.

The girls' families, Amish neighbors and friends are coping with the slayings by looking inward, relying on themselves and their faith, just as they have for centuries, to get them through what one Amish bishop called ``our 9/11.''

``They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent ... and they know that they will join them in death,'' said Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher who has written a book about children in Amish society.

``The hurt is very great,'' Huntington said. ``But they don't balance the hurt with hate.''

In just about any other community, a deadly school shooting would have brought demands from civic leaders for tighter gun laws and better security, and the victims' loved ones would have lashed out at the gunman's family or threatened to sue.

But that's not the Amish way.

In the aftermath of Monday's violence, the Amish have reached out to the family of the gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, who committed suicide during the attack in a one-room schoolhouse.

Dwight Lefever, a Roberts family spokesman, said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Among Roberts' survivors are his wife and three children.

``I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support,'' said Daniel Esh, a 57-year-old Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack.

Roberts' relatives may even receive money from a fund established to help victims and their families, said Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster services, an agency managing the donations.

Though the Amish generally do not accept help from outside their community, King quoted an Amish bishop as saying, ``We are not asking for funds. In fact, it's wrong for us to ask. But we will accept them with humility.''

The attack on West Nickel Mines Amish School began Monday morning when Roberts took over the one-room school, sent the adults and boys out and bound the 10 remaining girls at the blackboard. He was in the school for about an hour before he shot his hostages and turned the gun on himself as police closed in.

State police have said Roberts might have been planning to sexually assault the Amish girls but there was no evidence that he actually did.

Roberts had revealed to his wife in a note left behind the day of the attacks and in a cell phone call from inside the school that he was tormented by memories of molesting two young relatives 20 years ago and dreamed of molesting again. But police said Wednesday there was no evidence of any such sexual abuse.

Investigators spoke to the two relatives Roberts named, who would have been 4 or 5 at the time, and said neither recalled being sexually assaulted by Roberts.

``They were absolutely sure they had no contact with Roberts,'' said state police Trooper Linette Quinn.

There is talk among the Amish of tearing down the schoolhouse, which is now boarded up, said Daniel Esh, 57, an Amish artist and woodworker. He said he is certain the community will decide to replace and not reopen the schoolhouse.

On the roads into Nickel Mines early Thursday, families in traditional Amish dress, broad-brimmed hats and bonnets walked on foot and traveled in horse-drawn buggies. The clip-clop of the horses was broken up only by the roar of official helicopters overhead enforcing a no-fly zone over the region.