Mending process begins at school site

Razing of building creates memorial -- in Amish way

October 13, 2006|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

NICKEL MINES, Pa. -- The old silos, the red farmhouses, the hills striped in autumnal brown: The scenery along Pennsylvania Route 896 in Lancaster County is every bit a Grant Wood painting come to life. But the American landscape painter would not have recognized the harsh shade of green - something akin to faded AstroTurf- that covered a lone patch of ground yesterday where the West Nickel Mines Amish School had stood.

"It's hydroseed," said a weary Mike Hart, a spokesman for the Bart Township Fire Company, which early yesterday shared the difficult task of razing the schoolhouse where a gunman killed five Amish girls Oct. 2. "It looks strange now, but it will help the grass come up. Seven to 10 days and it won't be a bare patch anymore."

Hart, a volunteer firefighter, was there in the pre-dawn gloom, acting as a supervisor when a backhoe and several bulldozers brought down and cleared away the one-room school building in which Charles Carl Roberts IV took 10 girls hostage, shooting each of them before killing himself.

When the workers were finished, all that remained was a flattened out patch of rubble and dirt.

Later in the day, workers spread the hydroseed across the ground to begin the landscape's mending process. Hart says his own healing, and the one his Amish neighbors must undergo, will be a lot more complicated.

It was quiet where Mine Street meets White Oak, the main intersection in Nickel Mines, a quarter-mile from the former schoolyard. Yesterday afternoon, a makeshift memorial of flowers shone bright in the sun. A hand-lettered sign bearing the names of the dead girls read "God's Little Angels." Yellow tape, courtesy of the fire company, encircled the scene.

Across the way, a blue SUV pulled into the parking lot of the Nickel Mines Auction House. A man in shorts jumped out, camera in hand. He couldn't see the former schoolyard from there - plywood signs up and down White Oak said "No Stopping or Standing - but he trained his telephoto lens on the flowers anyway.

He snapped several shots. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he said cheerfully. "Just beautiful." He snapped a few more.

Inside the auction house, Steven Fisher stroked his full Amish beard. For a solid week - up until yesterday at noon - he gave his business over to the crush of reporters in town to cover the killings. He politely answered their questions, he said, but now that they had left, a new chapter had begun. He was preparing to reopen the auction house last night.

"Excuse me, sir, but are you here for the auction?" Fisher said to the visitor. "I hope you won't stay long. My customers will need to park here."

The visitor eyed him, got back in the SUV and revved it. He took more pictures as he drove away.

Fisher shook his head. Like the other Amish in Nickel Mines yesterday, he had nothing to add about the shootings or the demolition.

"I've been patient," he said with a bittersweet smile. "Forgive me, but there is work to do. It's time for us to try to get back to normal."

For Hart, that process had barely begun. At the township firehouse yesterday afternoon, a mile or so from the school site, he leaned against a wall and sighed. He was up at 4 a.m. to help supervise the heavy-machinery operators who brought down the schoolhouse.

The job itself wasn't difficult. A crew of about 40 brought the building down in less than 20 minutes as a small group of Amish looked on. Later, workers with backhoes filled the gaping hole with topsoil.

"It's not like the Amish to leave a permanent memorial," Hart said. "They don't believe in individual attention that way. One day the place will look like a pasture."

That thought was painful for Hart and his colleague, Michael Hoover, who was also there for the razing. Both have lived among the Amish for as long as they can remember. The two communities live side by side, Hoover said, in cooperation and mutual respect. Half the fire volunteers, in fact, are Amish, he said.

"They don't drive the trucks or talk on the radios," he said. "But volunteer work ties in with their love of helping their neighbor."

The pair had always admired Amish practicality, but the tragedy had shown them the real depth of that community's strength.

"I just got back from a 2 1/2 -hour meeting" of Amish and community leaders, Hart said. "These people are so smart. Their leaders think very rationally and make clear decisions. Nothing is rash."

It was too soon for Hart to grasp fully the loss of the schoolhouse, which the Amish had fashioned by hand. What dug at him wasn't that modern technology was used to raze it - many Amish are accustomed to working around farm machinery - but simply that only weeks ago the site was being used, and now it is no more.

"Soon when outsiders drive by here, it will seem like nothing happened," he said. "But when we see that site we'll get a lump in our throats. Our hearts will race. The memories will last. "

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