NICKEL MINES, Pa. – It's barely a town — a country crossing is more like it. Not much to it, really, except for a Thursday-night auction hall, a spring-fed swimming pool and a few homes framed by cornfields.
But those who live atop the little rise here have always felt a strong sense of place. Until Monday, when gunfire shattered their solitude, this was a place, they say, that danced with children's voices.
"You could hear them laughing, shouting, playing baseball," Ron Doutrich recalled, digging his hands into his jeans and gazing down the road, to where the steeple of a little Amish school peeks over the cornstalks.
Now, Doutrich and others wonder: Will the joy that once filled that little hollow ever return?
"It's innocence lost," said Jim Davis, a pastor at nearby Calvary Monument Bible Church. "Wherever people are, evil can reside."
If one could believe that evil exempts certain places, then this would seem the ideal place to come. It's not just that it is peaceful, which it is, or that it is quiet or pretty. It is that this place — with its horses-and-buggies and women in bonnets — seems to have preserved a sense of gentleness, so easily submerged in the coarseness of modern life.
To some extent, says Doutrich, who has lived among the Amish his whole life, all is not as ideal as it might seem. People here have problems, too.
But each time he watches the Amish working together to erect barns and schools, he appreciates the community they have forged, he said.
The little school seemed to embody much of what people appreciate about their way of life here. It is a simple place, a tiny cinderblock structure, plain as could be. But the children who reached it on scooters and by walking through the fields were as animated and curious as their parents were stoic. Doutrich recalls that about 10 days ago, a hot air balloon landed in the field across from his house. Within minutes, nearly 50 people — nearly all of them children — had gathered around, laughing and pointing.
On Monday the classroom down the hill was silent, and the schoolyard filled with police cruisers. The rising moon competed for sky with four news helicopters.
Doutrich is sure it can't stay that way. The Amish are resilient, he says, and will move past the school shooting by telling themselves it was God's will. But Davis is not so sure.
People, of whatever faith, are bound to question how such a terrible thing could have befallen this hamlet and its people. And the answers, he says, won't be easy to come by.
"I think the basic question people are asking right now is, God, why have you forsaken us?" said Davis, whose church opened its doors Monday night to offer counseling to those who are grieving. "What we have to do is allow people to ask the question."