Tragedy In Amish Country

In his years as a taxi driver, Bob Potts had driven his "FriendlyTransportation" cab all around his home of Lancaster County, Pa. The Amish weren't among his regular customers. When they couldn't walk, they usually took their familiar horse-drawn buggies, which Potts often passed on the roadside. In some ways, the Amish and non-Amish in the area were neighbors in proximity only. They lived alongside one another, but two centuries apart. The Amish, whose beliefs require them to live simply, don't drive; typically don't have electricity or phones in the house, and worship in each other's homes. Last Monday morning, however, after a deranged, anguished gunman entered an Amish schoolhouse and shot 10 girls and then himself, the cultural differences between the two communities were, for a time, set aside. The Amish, who cherish their privacy and separateness, welcomed the non-Amish neighbors who rushed over to help in whatever way they could. The outsiders sat with worried Amish parents, prepared food, held prayer vigils and, in many ways, met them for the first time.

In the chaotic aftermath of the shootings, some of the wounded girls had been quickly airlifted to hospitals. Parents watched their daughters disappear into the wider world. Non-Amish neighbors came with cell phones, so the parents could find out where their kids had landed. Some of the girls had been taken to hospitals too far away to be reached by buggy. Amish families agreed to ride to and from the hospitals in cars driven by their neighbors.

That's how Potts found himself, early Tuesday morning, driving an exhausted Amish family in his van in the predawn darkness. The little girl had been taken to a hospital in Hershey, an hour and a half away. The family had been up all night by her bedside, and Potts volunteered to bring them back home. His 10 passengers soon fell asleep. The men's black hats slipped from their laps. But after a little while, Potts heard voices behind him. The women had roused themselves to sing hymns. Potts was moved by their faith, and determination. Out of respect, he kept his eyes on the road and his sentiments to himself.

By the end of the week, five of the 10 girls wounded in the attack had died. Locals were left to wonder why Charles Roberts, a 32-year-old milk-truck driver with a wife and three young children, felt compelled to commit such horror. There were no signs of his inner torment. Churchgoing and attentive to his family, Roberts returned from his milk route each morning at 3 and then rose a few hours later to get his kids ready for school. In the afternoons, he watched them play on the trampoline he'd set up outside their home. Yet even as he went about his outward-ly placid life, he was secretly planning the attack. He had thought it through in advance, purchasing supplies that suggested he expected a standoff with police. In four suicide notes, he unleashed his despair. He wrote that he had never recovered from the death of his first child nine years ago, a daughter who had lived only 20 minutes. He wrote of his bitter anger at God. In a cell-phone call to his wife from inside the schoolhouse, Roberts claimed he had harbored another awful secret: 20 years earlier, he said, he had molested two very young relatives, and now he had an uncontrollable urge to do similar harm to children again. Authorities believe he intended to sexually assault the students, but the police arrived and the shooting began before he had the chance. He bound the girls' feet; he asked them to pray for him. One of the older girls, who was 13, told Roberts to shoot her first, recalled Rita Rhoads, a nurse-midwife who spoke with the grandfather of one of the surviving students. Apparently, the girl hoped her self-sacrifice would save her younger classmates, or at least give them more time before help arrived. Another girl, who was 12, immediately offered to be second.

After the attack, hundreds of reporters and television vans began to crowd the area. Just as quickly, the community gathered to guard the privacy of their Amish neighbors, who had no interest in grieving before the cameras. The non-Amish stood in driveways to keep the media away, blocked roads to ensure privacy at funerals and helped cover school windows against the prying eyes of photographers and the merely curious. With permission, a local minister brought in grief counselors who had worked with the Amish in the past.

The Amish answered the "English," as they call those who live in the secular world, with their own generosity of spirit, even toward Roberts's family. Community leaders sent a representative to express forgiveness. And as donations came in from around the country to help the families pay hospital bills, the Amish asked that a fund be set up for the Roberts family as well. At the viewing of one of the girls' bodies, her father received non-Amish neighbors. He asked if they knew the Roberts family. One answered that she did, but not well. "If you see them," he said, "please tell them that they are in our prayers."