Yesterday's tragic school shooting in Connecticut brought up discussion of the Amish school shooting of October 2006. This is a true story about how the Amish and non-Amish Nickel Mines community supported each other during and after that experience.
"The light that shines farthest, shines brightest at home."
The little fire station in Bart, Pennsylvania, is easy to miss. It sits on a quiet street, surrounded by houses, some shops, and fields. Station 51 has one hundred volunteer firemen. Seventy-five of those are Amish. There is a siren on the side of the station to call the Amish firemen; the others have pagers.
Fire Chief Curt Woerth was raised in Bart among the Amish. “It’s not like the Amish are living on an Indian reservation,” he said. “The community is not divided into ‘us/them,’ but truly ‘we.’”
He’s right. The Amish overlap with the English. Cars pass by buggies, Amish women work in the tourist stops, English houses are right next to Amish ones. The only obvious difference to the casual observer is that there is no electrical wiring leading from the street to an Amish home.
There are twenty-eight Amish schools in the district surrounding Station 51. The station has a trailer in the back parking lot to teach schoolchildren about fire safety, including children from Amish one-room schoolhouses. “We found it was easier to bus the students to the station than to try to find an appropriate place to park the trailer at each of the twenty-eight little school sites,” explained Woerth.
One of those little schools was the West Nickel Mines School.
When the tragic disaster of the shootings at the West Nickel Mines School struck this community on October 2, 2006, the Bart Township Fire Company was the first on the scene to respond. Within hours, the station house became the central command hub. To meet the community’s needs, Station 51 workers were put out of service for a week beginning at 2 p.m. after the shootings; their calls were covered by the other local fire stations.
Over the next week, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Fire Company provided three meals a day to all firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, and the Amish families of those involved. “The fire station was a safe haven for everyone,” said Woerth. “It was a whole community effort. Local vendors, like Wal-mart and Costco, sent jiffy johns, toilet paper, paper plates, paper cups. All the meals were served at the station—eight hundred to nine hundred meals during the time of the funerals. One guy came every day just to clean the toilets. He knew it needed to be done, and he found a way to help.”
Counseling, provided by local hospitals, was set up at the fire station for any and all who needed it. Many of the Amish families were able to benefit from the counseling, Woerth pointed out.
Hundreds of packages and thousands of letters flowed through the fire station. All packages and letters were sorted and checked before being distributed to the families. “All the mountains of mail received were opened by five ladies who sorted every piece.” Part of that precaution was for protection. Hard to believe, but some hate mail was sent to the Amish families.
Woerth said the fire station had never dealt with this type of thing before, especially all the media. “Really, 95 percent of the media was good, very respectful. It was just a couple who made things more difficult.” He’s referring to one reporter, in particular, who disguised herself as an Amish woman and tried to sneak into a funeral.
There has been no annual memorial remembrance of October 2. “Life will never return to what it was before,” said Woerth. “We have also learned through this tragic event that we live in a community where people care about one another and put the needs of others first.”
Woerth knew some of the victims. “One of the girls who was killed, Naomi Rose, had baked a pumpkin pie and brought it to my mother the night before the shooting,” he said. “My mom had cancer and was going in for chemotherapy the next morning. She was actually getting her chemo treatment when she saw the news on the TV. She was devastated.”
In countless ways, the police, civic officials, and Amish worked hand in hand to respond to the tragic event in the days and months that followed. When Lancaster County honored the first responders—firefighters, state troopers, investigators—in an official proclamation, no one was singled out as a hero to be recognized. They were united that day and wanted to be recognized as a team. “The police, fire, and EMS only did what they are trained to do. The difference with this situation was the watchful eye of the media.”
Chief Woerth dropped his chin to his chest for a moment, then lifted it a notch. “The only true heroes that day were the children in the school.”
Reprinted from Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World, with permission from Revell Books.
About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and
non-fiction books for Revell about the Old Order Amish. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and her weekly radio show by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. Download the free app, Amish Wisdom, to receive a daily Amish proverb. A moment of peace and calm in a busy day.