Grace amid the losses

Amish families attend a daylong conference on "The Power of Forgiveness: Lessons From Nickel Mines" at Elizabethtown College.
Amish families attend a daylong conference on "The Power of Forgiveness: Lessons From Nickel Mines" at Elizabethtown College.

While still enduring effects of shootings, Amish also reach out to console others.

Posted: October 02, 2011

Acid corrodes the container that holds it.

That's what happens when we hold on to bitterness.

- Amish farmer from Nickel Mines, Pa.

BART TOWNSHIP, Pa. - Christ King leans back hard against the weight of his daughter's wheelchair, lowers her with gentle thumps down the porch steps, and pushes her across the garden into the shade of a maple tree where a stranger waits.

"Hello, Rosanna!" the stranger says cheerily. He is Richard Egan, a 72-year-old retired fund-raiser from Northeast Philadelphia.

The girl looks up at Egan, her hazel eyes wide and surprised. He wears city clothes, large 1980s smoky glasses, and two days' growth of gray bristle.

She smiles and her voice erupts in strained bursts.

"I think she's trying to say hello," Egan says. He shakes his head in awe, then whispers, "She's so pretty."

Rosanna's blond hair, freshly shampooed and so fine it is almost translucent, has been brushed back and braided. The purple trim on her wheelchair matches her handsewn dress. Her thin hands and her feet, covered in short black socks, curl like a cat's paws.

"You're lucky," Christ (pronounced as in Christopher) King says, taking a seat on a white plastic chair beside his wife, Mary Liz. "She's having a good day." The week before, Rosanna had a series of violent seizures, 13 in all.

Five years ago, on Oct. 2, when she was 6, Rosanna was tied up along with 10 of her Amish classmates in their one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines. Charles Roberts, a local milk-truck driver, opened fire. He slaughtered five and then killed himself. Rosanna was shot through the head.

In the days, months, and years that have followed, the community's response has moved the nation and the world.

A rural enclave in Bart Township, Nickel Mines has become a shining moral symbol, a living monument to grace under duress and forgiveness in the face of evil.

For Old Order Amish, a Christian sect that values simplicity and humility, the landslide of attention that followed the tragedy posed an intense challenge.

Christ King says, "Most of the journalists behaved well" and respected his neighbors' requests not to be photographed. But as word spread that the stricken families had reached out to Roberts' relatives, attended his funeral, and shared donations with his widow, the community's compassion became as newsworthy as the violence that prompted it.

Over the last five years, these families have become emissaries of forgiveness, traveling to other states and hosting international visitors. This widening of their world has helped them heal as they offered consolation and advice to others.

There were 26 children in the school that day and several adult visitors. On the blackboard Emma Mae Zook, the teacher, had written, "Visitors bubble up our days."

When Roberts arrived with a 9mm gun and ordered the boys to help him unload his truck, Zook fled to a neighbor's house to call for help. The school had no phone.

Inside, while Roberts struggled to close the window shades, Emma Fisher, 9, heard a voice telling her to run, and she escaped.

Roberts tied up the 10 remaining girls, told them to lie on the floor, and ordered the boys out. Eleven were leaving their sisters behind.

One of the visitors, Lydia Mae Zook, 22, the teacher's sister-in-law, tried to soothe the sobbing child beside her, 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersole. Roberts, realizing that Zook was pregnant, allowed her to leave. (A week later, she gave birth to a girl she named Naomi Rose.)

According to Donald Kraybill, an authority on the Amish and co-author of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Roberts said he was angry with God and needed to "punish some Christian girls to get even with him."

The father of three young children, Roberts said in suicide notes that he had never recovered from the death of his infant daughter years before. He also said he was haunted by guilt for having sexually abused two relatives. (No substantiating evidence has ever been found.)

In Roberts' cache of lumber, guns, wires, chains, nails, and tools, investigators discovered K-Y jelly and theorized that he was planning a sexual assault. But police responded so quickly he did not have time.

In his last phone call to his wife, Roberts said: "I'm filled with so much hate towards myself, hate toward God."

The eldest of the girls, Marian Fisher, 13, tried to protect the others.

"Shoot me first," she said.

He executed the children, firing dozens of rounds at their heads at close range. Finally, he turned the gun on himself.

Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7, and Marian Stoltzfus Fisher, 13, died instantly. Anna May Stoltzfus, 12, was declared dead on arrival at Lancaster General Hospital.

Lena Zook Miller, 8, and her sister, Mary Liz, 7, died the next day in their mother's arms.

Five of the girls survived by burying their heads in their arms.

An ambulance took Rosanna King to the Lancaster hospital, where she was transferred by helicopter to Hershey Medical Center.

Christ King, who runs a welding business, was in Scranton, installing cow stalls. Mary Liz King was working in the yard. "I knew something was wrong because of all the police sirens and helicopters," she said.

By the time the Kings arrived at their daughter's bedside at 8 p.m., she was on life support. At 8:30, her breathing tube was removed. The doctors said they could do nothing to save her.

Rosanna made it through until morning.

"We took her home to die," Christ King says. But his daughter held on. They took her back to the hospital, where she stayed for 10 days. "She was like in a prenatal stage. She didn't cry. She did nothing." Then she started to come around.

The next six weeks were both miraculous and agonizing. "When she wasn't sleeping, she was screaming or crying," her father says. "How did we get through that? You have to wonder."

Three neighbors continue to help the Kings. They take Rosanna to appointments and bring her to their homes to give her parents a break on bad days, when she can't stop crying or vomiting.

Mary Liz King, a sweet-faced 34-year-old with hands chapped from housework, smoothes her black apron over her pine-green dress. The stress of caring for her daughter has not diminished her buoyant nature. "I think we should clip your fingernails again, Rosanna," she says, stroking the girl's hair and kissing her forehead.

Christ King, 36, sees his sons peering through the windows and invites them to come outside. Leroy, 13, carries his 11-month-old brother, Benuel. Alvin, 7, and John, 4, follow. Like their father, the boys wear homemade shirts and black trousers with suspenders. Keeping a curious eye on Egan, they listen carefully to his questions and their parents' account of their lives.

"She really sees me," says Egan, delighted. "I didn't know what to expect."

Rosanna's progress, Christ King explains, is erratic. "Sometimes, she turns her head hard left for hours and is restless. Other times, she'll just lock out and we'll put her to bed. When she turns hard right, she has seizures. Her head jerks around, she gags and throws up. But these don't happen much."

The Kings recently discovered that Rosanna's hip is dislocated.

"She had been crying, screaming sometimes, but the doctors were concentrating on her brain injury," says her mother, who noticed Rosanna could not bear putting weight on her hip. An X-ray revealed the problem. "Her joint is all worn and ragged. The damage happened gradually. That's why no one detected it. It didn't pop out all of a sudden. It could have been that way for two years." They were told she would need a hip replacement.

"The doctors in Hershey told us to let it go for now, while she's still growing," Christ King says. But she's obviously in so much pain, "we couldn't come to grips with that."

Three weeks ago, Rosanna was reevaluated at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. More tests are needed, Christ King says, before he and his wife decide what to do.

A group of doctors and therapists, some of whom waive their fees, go to the Kings' white farmhouse every two months, spending two or three hours assessing Rosanna's needs.

"For the last half-year, it does seem like we're possibly adjusting . . . and moving on with life," Christ King says. "However, moving on with life now is certainly a big change from what life was like five years ago. There are a lot of good things we've had a chance to experience that we would not have had."

In August 2007, Christ King was among the Nickel Mines emissaries who visited with grieving families at Virginia Tech. That December, four Russian psychologists went to Nickel Mines to talk about forgiveness and how to help families cope after the 2004 hostage crisis at the Beslan school. Among those murdered were 186 children.

And on Oct. 31, 2008, Christ King and his wife joined other families to welcome an Israeli couple whose daughter and two friends had been killed by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

Through these encounters, Christ King says, "we have a more in-depth feeling of empathy for other people in grief-stricken situations."

Though measuring degrees of suffering after a tragedy is impossible, one Amish father believes the Kings bear the greatest burden. For the families of children who escaped or survived with only moderate injuries or who died, the pace of ordinary life can overtake the memories.

But Rosanna's complete helplessness makes every waking moment a reminder.

Christ King once promised his daughter a pony if she could recite the blessings from the Sermon on the Mount. "I believe she had most of them memorized," he says. "I'm ashamed to say we haven't said the Beatitudes in a while. . . . The boys used to say their prayers at night and put their hand on Rosanna and say Rosanna's prayers. But we had gotten a little sloppy about gathering around her."

"We weren't including her enough in family activities," Mary Liz King says.

Over the summer, Rosanna seemed agitated. "So I suggested we read her a Bible story at night, selections from Uncle Arthur's Bible Stories. I think we started with Elijah, and, don't you know, she was more relaxed. We also started singing a song to her. It's been amazing. I don't want to say I didn't believe it, but.. . ."

"We sing little funny songs, don't we, Rosanna?" Mary Liz King says, injecting a thick syringe filled with blended food into the feeding tube in her daughter's side, the last of six she receives daily for lunch.

"We have a great doctor who helps us with a formula so she gets the right balance of nutrition. It takes a lot of dedication to keep her weight."

When Rosanna was shot, she weighed 45 pounds. At 11, she now weighs nearly 80.

After the shooting, contributions flowed into the community from around the world. Students organized fund-raisers. Twenty poor African churches donated $1 each.

At its peak, the fund totaled $5 million. Today, about one-third of the principal is left. The money pays for medical bills, medicine, and hefty transportation costs. Rosanna is taken several days a week for an oxygen treatment in Columbia, an hour away.

Last spring, the committee approved an addition to the Kings' house, which had only one bathroom and no disability access.

Egan is concerned that the children's continuing needs may soon drain the fund completely. He has put the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which manages the fund, in his will and urges friends to contribute because donations have trickled to almost nothing.

There are occasional surprises. Last month, a woman in New York wrote to say she was leaving her entire estate to the fund (the amount is as yet unknown). But few people are like Egan, who sends checks year after year.

"I was horrified by this incident," Egan says. "I kept thinking of my granddaughters. I couldn't get it out of my mind."

In June, he was invited to visit Rosanna and was planning the trip when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. In September, he was finally able to slip away for a few hours. "I'm really honored to be here," he says, touching the girl's cheek.

The next day, Sept. 11, was Rosanna's birthday. Four of the families who lost their daughters would be coming to celebrate. Since the shooting, sharing the children's birthdays has been a tradition. "It's been the best counseling we've had," Christ King says. "There have been some deep discussions."

As grateful as they are for the generosity Rosanna has received, the Kings say the attention makes them uncomfortable.

"We feel unworthy that we get this kind of help," Mary Liz King says.

"There are so many others who are in need," Christ King says.

About a month ago, his wife was talking to the father of two handicapped children. "I asked: 'Doesn't this ever end? Don't you get into something normal?'

"He said no."

Aaron Esh Jr. was 13, the oldest boy in the school.

He used to wonder what he would do if something bad happened there. "I always thought the boys would gang up together and protect the others," he says. "Then the situation came to be."

His voice trails off.

He sits with two friends, the older brothers of Naomi Rose Ebersole, having a picnic lunch on the grass beside a duck pond at Elizabethtown College, about 45 minutes west of Nickel Mines.

They spent the morning, along with their families and several hundred academics, therapists, religious leaders, and Amish people at a conference on forgiveness.

"The whole forgiveness thing is a journey," Aaron says, chewing on a blade of grass and stretching his long legs. "It helps to come here."

A year after the attack, Aaron started losing weight. He was diagnosed with anorexia. When he fell below 100 pounds, he was hospitalized.

For several years, he says, no matter how hard he tried, he could not force himself to eat.

He says he felt guilty, thinking he should have tried to stop the killer. But then several state troopers visited him. "They explained to me that if I'd tried to do something, it would have made things so much worse." In their experience dealing with hostage situations, they said, attempts to interfere usually inflame things.

After their meeting, Aaron says, he felt better. But it took several years for him to overcome his eating disorder. Fair-skinned with thick, hay-blond bangs, he is now a lanky 6-foot-1 and healthy.

"I realized that [forgiveness] wasn't up to me. That there is a higher power."

The trauma deepened his faith. "It was like an earthquake. There are tragedies and natural disasters. They bring people closer to God. It's his way of calling us." The death of five girls and so much anguish for the survivors "was a big price, yes, in this life. But we're not going to be here forever."

As hard as it is to talk about Oct. 2, the conference, like other events in which the Nickel Mines families have discussed the shooting and its aftermath, has been therapeutic, Aaron says. "It's good to bring it back because we're going to live with it for the rest of our lives."

The experience forced him to grow up faster. "You want to do better. Live a better life, you know? You realize what life's all about."

The conference on "The Power of Forgiveness: Lessons From Nickel Mines" begins early Sept. 22. A caravan of minivans unloads about 70 bearded Amish men in black trousers and broad-brimmed straw hats, women in long dark dresses and white organdy caps.

One group has come from Ohio, among them Lovina Miller, whose brother-in-law recently shot his wife to death. The Nickel Mines families are all there, along with Emma Zook, the teacher, and Lydia Mae Zook, now a mother of three.

Mary Liz and Christ King have left their older boys at home and brought Benuel, bundled in a blue sweater.

Reuben and Emma Fisher stand side by side near the registration table, greeting friends. Four of their grandchildren were in the school that day.

Marian was killed. Emma, the youngest, was the one girl who escaped, as did her 8-year-old brother, Elmer. Barbie, 12, was severely injured, her shoulder pulverized by rifle shots.

After several surgeries, Barbie can move her arm enough to play volleyball but needs regular therapy.

"We have this struggle with emotions like everyone else," Anna May Esh says. The attack shook her to the core. "It made me stop and think. What are we doing here? It made me slow down."

As Amish, aren't they slow already?

She laughs. "Now, I'm slower."

At 8:45 a.m., the filled auditorium falls silent, except for a crying baby. In his address, Donald Kraybill says: "There is not a specific formula for how forgiveness happens." What made Nickel Mines unique was the speed with which the injured extended their hand to Roberts' family.

Only six or seven hours after "the event," he says, the Amish went to see Roberts' parents and widow to "express compassion."

Forgiveness, Kraybill says, is not about forgetting or condoning; it is not a pardon or justice or reconciliation.

Normally, "there is an emotional process and then the decision to forgive. . . . In Nickel Mines that was flipped upside down."

He compares the community's response to a "moral barn-raising" and says, "When Charlie was buried, half of those in attendance were Amish, some of whom had just buried their own children."

There were a few expressions of anger, more of pain. "One woman said, 'When I saw Naomi Rose in the coffin, I was angry - not at Charlie, but at all the evil in the world.' "

The Amish community's belief in forgiveness, Kraybill says, "goes back to the Lord's Prayer. 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who transgress against us.' "

Letting go of revenge and grudges can be an act of self-preservation, he says, because self-pity is toxic and makes you hostage to the past.

Terri Roberts, Charlie Roberts' mother, has become a familiar presence in Nickel Mines. A sophisticated woman in her mid-60s, tall and reed thin, with short, white, spiky hair, she visits Rosanna every Thursday and helps, when needed, to bathe the girl or read her stories.

(Her daughter-in-law, Charlie Roberts' widow, who remarried and moved a few miles away, has kept her distance.) At the forgiveness conference, breakout sessions are offered in the afternoon. Kraybill's draws most of the academics. Another, led by Terri Roberts, draws the Amish.

Roberts steps up to the lectern in a flowing purple dress and scarf.

"Our son Charles was responsible for the Nickel Mines tragedy," she says, her voice crackling with emotion.

She speaks for a rambling hour, expounding like a preacher, repeatedly thanking the Amish for helping her through her own suffering. Four years before her son's rampage, she says, she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, God's way, she believes, of preparing her for the greater crisis to come.

"We can experience joy through adversity," she says. "We don't need to live 24/7 in the pain."

Her son was not quite 33, father of three young children. On the morning of Oct. 2, while her son was securing nylon ties around the Amish girls' ankles, Terri Roberts was at her job at Sight and Sounds Theatres in Lancaster, which produces biblical plays and musicals.

She got a call from her husband, Charles, a retired police officer who used to drive for the Amish. (Church ordinance does not allow them to operate modern vehicles.) He told her to come to their son's house in nearby Georgetown.

On the way, she turned on the radio and heard the news. "I wondered if Charlie was helping with the rescue," she said. "What if he was shot? What if he was killed?"

She says she has no insight, no explanation for what came over him. "This could not be, was not the son, the husband, the daddy we knew."

Since the tragedy, she has held teas and picnics for the victims' families, and receives updates about the survivors' medical conditions. Of all the girls, Sarah Ann Stoltzfus, now 13, has made the most astonishing recovery. Shot in one side of her brain, like Rosanna she was not expected to survive. But after she was removed from the respirator, she surprised everyone, making steady, dramatic progress.

She remained partially blind until a few months ago when she regained her sight.

Last year on the shooting anniversary, Aaron and Anna May Esh hosted a get-together. Several of the parents who lost daughters and who have since had babies attended.

So did Terri Roberts. She had been in the bleachers, watching her granddaughter's field hockey game when Aaron Esh called to invite her.

"It was an answer to my prayers," Roberts says. "In my heart, I wanted to be with them, but I didn't want to intrude."

At the Eshes' home, she was welcomed into the gathering held in the same garage that served as a temporary school for six months after the killing.

The original building was demolished under cover of darkness four days after the shooting. A new school, equipped with sensors and a security gate, opened in April 2007, nearer to houses with phone service. Today, the site of the original school has returned to pasture, where horses graze beneath the five flowering pear trees planted as a memorial to the slain girls.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Roberts about the anniversary gathering.

"Some families didn't want to come at all," Anna May Esh says. "But once they started talking, they couldn't stop. People stayed until after dark. Even the little girls who were wounded spoke. They were talking about where they were on the floor that day."

The resolve to forgive is not a once-and-done matter. The survivors' families say they wrestle with their emotions and have to repeatedly, sometimes daily, renew their commitment.

"We ask God some difficult questions," Christ King says. "But as the journey goes on, definitely in the low times, God was still there for us, even if we still wonder why."


Nickel Mines

Contributions to the fund for the Nickel Mines victims can be sent to the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee,

959 Georgetown Rd., Paradise, Pa. 17562.


For more photographs from the time of the shooting and five years later, go to www.philly.com/amish


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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