GEORGETOWN, Pa. – They came from across the Pennsylvania countryside dressed in black, bearded men in hats and suits, women in dresses and bonnets. Famous for keeping the surrounding society out, their mourning was remarkable for what they let in: forgiveness.
The Amish gathered for two-hour funerals in the homes of their friends before climbing into horse-drawn buggies and making their way, one by one, to a wind-swept, hilltop cemetery.
They did it three times Thursday for four young girls killed by a gunman Monday in the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School. A fifth victim's funeral was set for Friday, and the community faced the prospect that at least one of the five girls wounded could die.
State troopers blocked off all roads into the village of Nickel Mines and led the buggies and black carriages holding the girls' hand-sawn wooden coffins. Funeral processions passed the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the 32-year-old milk truck driver who took the girls hostage, tied them up and shot them before killing himself.
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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."
The attack was so traumatic the school house may soon be razed to obliterate the memories. Even so, many Amish have embraced Roberts' relatives, who may receive money from a fund established to help victims and their families.
The family of 13-year-old victim Marian Fisher even invited his wife, Marie, to her funeral; it was unclear whether she attended. Marie Roberts' family said Thursday that the families knew each other because the Fisher farm was a regular stop on Charles Roberts' milk route.
Funerals also were held for 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol, and sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Miller, 7. The funeral for 12-year-old Anna Mae Stoltzfus was scheduled for Friday.
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.
Media were blocked from the funerals and the burials, and airspace for 2 1/2 miles in all directions was closed to news helicopters. During the slow processions, the clip-clop of the horses was broken up only by the roar of official helicopters enforcing the no-fly zone.
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.
Amish funerals are conducted in German and focus on God, not on commemorating the dead. There is no singing, but ministers read hymns and passages from the Bible and an Amish prayer book.
A couple who attended Naomi's and Marian's funerals said there were two ministers at each service, which is customary. The first minister spoke for about 10 minutes, the second for about 45 minutes, said the couple, who provided only their first initials and last name, King.
The husband, A. King, quoted one of the ministers as saying, "The person that died isn't here anymore. We have to think of the people who are still living."
State troopers who responded to the shootings were present at one of the burials, the Kings said.
"That was really touching for us," A. King said.
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.
Charles 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.
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.