Amish rebuild in `a work of love'

January 29, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Nickel Mines, Pa. -- As light snow swirled, the only sounds that could be heard on the country lane were the scrape of mortar on brick, the tap of a hammer and the whine of a power saw.

In a field between two houses, down a drive marked "no trespassing," more than a dozen men could be seen one day last week laying bricks, pounding nails and cutting planks to build a new one-room schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse is rising a few hundred feet from where the West Nickel Mines Amish School stood. On Oct. 2, a milk truck driver burst into that building and shot 10 Amish girls before taking his own life. Five of the girls died. Another remains semicomatose, and four have undergone numerous surgeries and hours of rehabilitation.

Working with relatives, neighbors and volunteers, the fathers of the victims are building the new school, according to John Coldiron, a Bart Township zoning official who says he frequently visits the site of the new school.

Students have been attending classes at a temporary location for months, but the construction of a new, permanent schoolhouse is an important step for the community, said Herman Bontrager, spokesman for the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, the group that collects and disburses funds for the victims.

"For the families and the community, it's sort of a work of love and caring for the children, and that becomes part of the healing process," he said.

The former schoolhouse was torn down by community members 10 days after the shootings. The grass has grown up where the small yellow building once stood, and the area is indistinguishable from the surrounding pasture.

"People just could not conceive of asking their child day after day to go back to that building and relive the trauma," Bontrager said. "There was also some concern that it would become some kind of shrine or memorial thing that would attract tourists."

This quiet farm community attracted international attention after Charles Carl Roberts III charged into the small classroom, ordered the boys and some visitors to leave, then barricaded the windows and doors before opening fire.

The crush of news media that descended on the community after the shootings intensified the disruption in the lives of the reclusive Amish. Community leaders released a statement last month asking reporters and writers not to approach them. Signs warning against trespassing mark the site of the old school, as well as the small cemetery where the victims are buried.

About a week after the shootings, the teacher, 20-year-old Emma Mae Zook, and the uninjured students - 15 boys and 9-year-old Emma Fisher, who ran out with her brother - resumed classes in the garage of a neighborhood home.

Three of the girls with less severe injuries returned to school later in the fall. A fourth, Sarah Ann Stoltzfus, 12, was released from the hospital just before Christmas.

"She's going to school now and apparently is doing very well cognitively," Bontrager said. "She wanted to catch up on the school work that she missed."

The youngest shooting victim, Rosanna King, 6, appears paralyzed and generally unresponsive, Bontrager said. Shortly after the shooting, her family asked that she be removed from life support and brought her home to die. She continues to live, attended by family members around the clock, he said.

Hospitals absorbed the cost of the girls' initial medical expenses, Bontrager said, and his group has recently begun to receive bills for their follow-up care. More than $4 million in donations has been received for those affected by the shootings, he said.

Yet the Nickel Mines Amish community has decided to build the school using other gifts from local donors, Bontrager said.

Wolf Rock Associates, an Amish construction company with offices just down the street from the school, has taken charge of construction, Coldiron said.

"Along with his company, all of the people in his church, elders and so forth, they're all pitching in to help, which is typical" for the Amish, he said.

The builders are following the same floor plan that is used for all Amish schools, Coldiron said. But the new school at Nickel Mines is being made of brick, an unusual choice. "I don't know, maybe it goes back to the story of the three little pigs - the brick house didn't get blown over," he said.

The school is protected by the surrounding houses and a long, private drive, he said, adding that construction should be complete by the end of next month.

"The sooner that they can get back to more normal, the sooner they will be able to continue the healing process," said Rita Rhoads, a midwife who delivered several of the victims and remains close to their families. "People are just trying to get on with life."

Bontrager, who belongs to a liberal Amish sect, said that the act of building the new school was more important to the community than the structure itself.

"Things like buildings aren't sacred, they're incidental to the Amish," he said. "But the community bonding together to make a place of learning for the children - that's an act of love. That's always part of healing."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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