Fathers Who Lost Daughters in Amish Schoolhouse Massacre Reveal They Are Still Healing 10 Years Later
In the tiny hamlet of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the Amish refer to the events of Oct. 2 2006 as “The Happening.”
That’s because what actually happened was an unspeakable horror.
Shortly before 10 that morning, local milk truck driver Charles Roberts, 32, walked into a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines armed to the teeth. He ordered all 26 children to line up in front of the blackboard, then let the three teachers and 15 boys leave while he tied up the girls, ages 6 to 13, with zip ties. He then proceeded to barricade the door with 2 x 4’s and 2 x 6’s.
An hour later, after the tiny schoolhouse was surrounded by police, he shot all ten girls before killing himself. Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7; Marian Stoltzfus Fisher, 13; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; Lena Zook Miller, 8; and Mary Liz Miller, 7, were killed while five more – Rosanna King, now 16; Rachel Ann Stoltzfus, now 18; Barbie Fisher, now 21; Sarah Ann Stoltzfus, now 22; Esther King, now 23, – were critically wounded but survived.
The Amish – who do not usually allow photos to be taken of themselves, dress in Old World garb, do not have electricity or television in their homes, use horses and buggies instead of cars and dedicate themselves to living humble lives out of the public eye – quickly found themselves in the middle of a 21st century media firestorm.
Ten years later, fathers of two of the girls who died tell PEOPLE that time has helped ease their pain. They did not want their first names used because they do not want to draw attention to themselves for religious reasons. They rarely do media interviews but spoke to PEOPLE because they were overwhelmed by the love and support they received from around the world and wanted to further explain their decision to forgive the killer.
“We still have our ups and downs, all of us,” says the father of Anna Mae Stolzfus, who died in the tragedy, and another girl who was injured. “There’s definitely some emotional struggles, though not to the extent of the first couple of years.
But overall, “we’ve all found a certain degree of healing,” he says. “The pain isn’t as sharp. The one thing I’d like to relate so that people can understand is – grief is a journey and at first the mountains are really steep and the valleys are deep and dark and then it gradually levels out.
“They’re still there but they’re not as high and not as steep to get over,” he says. “We may see foothills but I’m not convinced we’re going to get to see road bumps.”
Added Naomi Rose Ebersol’s father: “We didn’t forget about them. We still talk to the other children about Naomi Rose. It’s just we’ve learned how to deal with it.”
In the days after the tragedy, what quickly outshone the horror of the crimes was what came next – word that the parents had forgiven Roberts for the atrocious acts.
Today those parents want the world to know that while the decision to forgive was made quickly – actually forgiving was a process that took years.
“Forgiveness is not an instant, overnight thing,” says Anna Mae’s father. “When the subject of forgiveness first came up – I don’t know who said what to whom – the story in the media was we forgave him and that’s all there was to it basically.
“The reality of it is a choice was made immediately that we would forgive – for most of us that choice was probably made that first day already,” he says. But “it took several years before most of us could actually feel as though we had forgiven him and even now we have to go through that process again.”
That’s exactly what he went through, he says.
“There was no doubt in my mind from the beginning that I would forgive Charlie but it took a couple of years before I could say I did and could truly mean it,” he says. “And there’s still times – one of the girls has ongoing health issues because of [the shooting] and there’s another who’s had a number of surgeries because of her shoulder – and when things like that come up it tends to reawaken the bitter feelings and the process has to be gone through again.”
Still, he says, it gets a little easier each time.
Naomi Rose’s father agrees.
“I still have to deal with it at times,” he says. “I think, ‘Why did somebody get so messed up they did something so horrible?’ That’s how it was early on. We’re not free of that. It’s still a choice, even today.”
Not long after the tragedies, a local expert on the Amish explained the genesis of their beliefs to PEOPLE.
“One is their religious tradition, which comes out of the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Protestant reformation in 16th century Europe and their forbearers were advocating adult baptisms, which at that time was a capitol offense. And so thousands of their ancestors died as martyrs because of the religious persecution.”
The second, he said, is that they “look to Jesus as an example for themselves, particularly when he went to the cross and didn’t fight back,” he said.
“He didn’t try to engage in self-defense when he was carrying his cross and then when he was hanging on the cross, he actually says a prayer to God, … ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do,’ ” said Kraybill, who co-authored the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. “A couple other parts of Jesus is, ‘You should forgive 70 times 7.’
“Jesus is being humorous at that point but they would cite that …and would also cite things like, ‘Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek’ so that…forgiveness is very much embedded in their faith,” he said.
Anne Mae’s father agreed.
“It is something we are taught from babies on up – that if someone says, ‘Sorry,’ we are to forgive,” he says. “As you get older we’re taught that even if they don’t say, ‘Sorry,’ we are to forgive for our own well-being. So deciding to forgive almost becomes second nature.”
It may be second nature to the Amish, but the message still touched people everywhere it seemed.
“We had letters from all over the world,” Anna Mae’s father says. “Some of those letters it was so obvious that God’s hand was in it that it got to our door.. Can you imagine a letter from Australia or South Africa or some such faraway place addressed to Stoltzfus family United States arriving at a particular person’s mailbox? We had a couple that was all that was on it. There was a higher hand in that one.
“There were dozens that were no more specific than ‘School Families, Pennsylvania, USA’ and that was it and they made it to our office.”
And that’s not all, he says.
“If I wanted to talk about the miracles from that week I could talk for hours,” he says. “A friend of ours has an Easter lily bed. It only blooms in the spring under normal circumstances. That fall it had beautiful white lilies in full bloom the week of the school ‘Happening.’
“Another family has lilac bushes – they had five big white lilac blooms that week,” he says. “They only bloom in the spring.”
He himself found comfort from a friend who came to visit not long after the tragedy.
“I was sitting at the table, trying to choke down some breakfast,” he says. “He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I was trying to make sense of what happened yesterday. I just couldn’t. I got my Bible and it fell open to the book of Job.’
“What happened to Job is Satan asked God to torment Job and God allowed it,” he says. “So it wasn’t part of God’s original plan. I think that’s what happened yesterday. I don’t think that’s part of God’s original plan but for reasons we don’t understand, he allowed it.
“So that was helpful to me to deal with what happened,” he says. “Then it wasn’t very long at all before we started hearing stories of people who were helped … and I was telling people that if one person was led to a new life, a better life, a Christian life, that had not been there before, or a Christian rededicated himself, that does make my daughter’s death more bearable. And those stories have been ongoing.”
Each of the five families who lost children in “The Happening” have welcomed new ones over the last ten years.
That has helped with the healing as well, Anna Mae’s father says.
“That’ll never take the place of the ones that are not here but they definitely do help,” he says. “It gives you something different to think about. And they bring joy they really do.”
Lately, survivor’s guilt – in the form of depression and thoughts of “Why were we allowed to live while others weren’t?” – has started to show up with some of the surviving children, he says, so the families are making sure they get the counseling they need.
“The thought always was the children dealt with it better than we did and looking back, I think the reason was they didn’t grasp the situation,” he says. “A child’s mind doesn’t grasp the way an adult does and the reality of it hit them.”
The families have found comfort with each other as well.
“Even today it’s healing for us as parents to be able to talk about it,” he says. “A burden shared is a burden divided.”
The anniversary of the tragedy will undoubtedly be tough but he plans to take his family to the cemetery where Anna Mae is buried.
Naomi Rose’s father says he’s not sure if they will visit her grave but they will be thinking about her.
“I’m at a point I’m OK she’s not here,” he says. “There are so many bad things going on in the world today. She’s in a better place now. I trust she’s in God’s hands.”