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Amish Gather to Pray at Girls’ Funerals

October 5, 2006

GEORGETOWN, Pa. (AP) _ A procession of 34 buggies and carriages carried mourners to a hilltop cemetery Thursday as the Amish community buried the first of five girls killed by a gunman inside their tiny one-room schoolhouse.

Two state troopers on horseback and a funeral director’s black sedan with flashing yellow lights led the cortege, followed by a long horse-drawn buggy carrying the body of 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol.

The route wove past the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the 32-year-old milk truck driver who took the girls hostage Monday morning, tied them up and then shot them. One Amish man craned his head out a buggy window to look at the home.

It was the first in a series of funerals Thursday for victims of the West Nickel Mines Amish School shooting. All roads leading into the village of Nickel Mines were blocked by state police so the Amish could gather privately in homes to remember Ebersol; Marian Fisher, 13; and sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Miller, 7.

The funeral for a fifth girl, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, was scheduled for Friday.

Relatives of Roberts’ wife said Thursday that the Fisher farm was a regular stop on Roberts’ milk route.

``We knew that family very, very well,″ said Jacquie Hess, an aunt of Roberts’ widow, Marie. She said the Fishers invited Marie Roberts to their daughter’s funeral but she didn’t know if she would attend.

Marian Fisher’s sister was among five other female students who survived the schoolhouse attack but were seriously injured.

County coroner G. Gary Kirchner said he had been contacted by a doctor at Penn State Children’s Hospital in Hershey who said doctors expected to take one girl off life support so she could be brought home. Dr. D. Holmes Morton, who runs a clinic that serves Amish children, said Thursday that the reports that a 6-year-old had been taken off life-support and taken home to die were accurate ``as far as I know.″

``I just think at this point mostly these families want to be left alone in their grief and we ought to respect that,″ Morton said.

National mourning of similar tragedies, such as the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, has been enabled in part by media coverage _ something the Amish generally shun.

In Lancaster County, there have been prayer services for the Amish school shooting victims at area churches, but the traditional funerals for the girls were closed. About 300 to 500 people were expected at each, said funeral director Philip W. Furman.

Amish custom calls for simple wooden caskets, narrow at the head and feet and wider in the middle. An Amish girl is typically laid to rest in a white dress, a cape, and a white prayer-covering on her head, Furman said.

The girls’ families, Amish neighbors and friends are coping with the slayings by looking inward, relying on themselves and their faith, just as they have for centuries, to get them through what one Amish bishop called ``our 9/11.″

``They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent ... and they know that they will join them in death,″ said Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher who has written a book about children in Amish society.

``The hurt is very great,″ Huntington said. ``But they don’t balance the hurt with hate.″

Dwight Lefever, a Roberts family spokesman, said an Amish neighbor had comforted Marie Roberts and her three children hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness.

Roberts’ relatives may even receive money from a fund established to help victims and their families, said Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster services, an agency managing the donations.

Though the Amish generally do not accept help from outside their community, King 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.″

The attack on West Nickel Mines Amish School began Monday morning when Roberts took over the small schoolhouse, sent the adults and boys out and bound the 10 remaining girls at the blackboard. He was in the school for about an hour before he shot his hostages and turned the gun on himself as police closed in.

State police have said Roberts might have been planning to sexually assault the Amish girls but there was no evidence that he actually did.

Roberts had revealed to his wife in a note left behind the day of the attacks and in a cell phone call from inside the school that he was tormented by memories of molesting two young relatives 20 years ago and dreamed of molesting again. But police said Wednesday there was no evidence of any such sexual abuse.

Investigators spoke to the two relatives Roberts named, who would have been 4 or 5 at the time, and said neither recalled being sexually assaulted by Roberts.

``They were absolutely sure they had no contact with Roberts,″ said state police Trooper Linette Quinn.

There is talk among the Amish of tearing down the schoolhouse, which is now boarded up, said Daniel Esh, 57, an Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were at the school. He said he is certain the community will decide to replace and not reopen the schoolhouse.

On the roads into Nickel Mines early Thursday, families in traditional Amish dress, broad-brimmed hats and bonnets walked on foot and traveled in horse-drawn buggies. The clip-clop of the horses was broken up only by the roar of official helicopters overhead enforcing a no-fly zone over the region.

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