Amish Gather to Pray at Girls' Funerals

Scores of horse-drawn buggies from across the Pennsylvania countryside clip-clopped past the home of the schoolhouse gunman to a windswept, hilltop graveyard Thursday as the Amish buried four of the g
( [email protected] ) Oct 06, 2006 11:47 AM EDT

GEORGETOWN, Pa. (AP) - Scores of horse-drawn buggies from across the Pennsylvania countryside clip-clopped past the home of the schoolhouse gunman to a windswept, hilltop graveyard Thursday as the Amish buried four of the girls killed in their classroom.

In a doleful scene that looked like a 19th-century tintype, hundreds of Amish — boys and bearded men in wide-brimmed hats and dark suits, women and girls in long black dresses and black mourning bonnets — stood near a huge mound of earth for the brief graveside services.

The daylong series of three funeral processions took the coffins past the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the 32-year-old milk truck driver who laid siege Monday to the girls' one-room schoolhouse in an attack so traumatic that the building may soon be razed to obliterate the memories.

Benjamin Nieto, 57, watched the processions from a friend's porch.

"They were just little people," he said of the victims. "They never got a chance to do anything."

Pennsylvania state troopers on horseback and a funeral director's black car with flashing yellow lights cleared the way for up to four dozen buggies, including black carriages carrying the hand-sawn wooden coffins of 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol, then 13-year-old Marina Fisher, then sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Miller, 7. The funeral for the fifth girl, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, was scheduled for Friday.

The killer's widow was invited to one of the funerals Thursday, according to a Roberts family member. But it was not immediately known if she attended. Roberts was well-known around the community because his milk pickup route took him to many Amish dairy farms.

The girls, in white dresses made by their families, were laid to rest in graves dug by hand in a small burial ground bordered by cornfields and a white rail fence. Amish custom calls for simple wooden coffins, narrow at the head and feet and wider in the middle.

To protect the privacy of the Amish, all roads leading into the village of Nickel Mines were blocked off for both the funerals, which were held in the families' homes, and the burials. Airspace for 2 1/2 miles in all directions was closed to news helicopters.

Tragedies such as the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado have become moments of national mourning, in large part because of satellite and TV technology. But the Amish shun the modern world and both its ills and conveniences, including automobiles and most electrical appliances.

"I just think at this point mostly these families want to be left alone in their grief and we ought to respect that," said Dr. D. Holmes Morton, who runs a clinic that serves Amish children.

Donors from around the world are pledging money to help the families of the five dead and the five wounded in amounts ranging from $1 to $500,000. The families could face steep medical bills.

Though the Amish generally do not seek help from outside their community, Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster services, an agency managing the donations, 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."

At the behest of Amish leaders, a fund has also been set up for the killer's widow and three children.

During the slow trip to the funerals, the clip-clop of the horses was broken up only by the roar of official helicopters enforcing the no-fly zone.

Mary Miller, 43, a hotel housekeeper, watched the processions from her front porch. As the buggy carrying one of the dead passed, Miller said, "I had tears in my eyes because I knew there was a child's body in that one."

In the attack on West Nickel Mines Amish School, Roberts took over the schoolhouse, sent the adults and boys out and bound the 10 remaining girls at the blackboard. Investigators said he might have been planning to sexually assault the girls before police closed in. He shot the girls and killed himself.

Roberts had confided to his wife by cell phone that he was tormented by memories of molesting two young relatives 20 years ago.

A sixth victim was reported in grave condition Thursday. County coroner G. Gary Kirchner said he had been contacted by a physician at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey who said doctors expected to take one girl off life support.

Daniel Esh, an Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were at the school, said there was also talk among the Amish of tearing down the schoolhouse.

Associated Press writer Martha Raffaele and photographer Carolyn Kaster contributed to this report.

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