NICKEL MINES, Pa. – An Amish girl who has been hospitalized for nearly three months after being shot during a gunman's fatal attack on her one-room schoolhouse returned this week for her classmates' annual Christmas party and may finally be discharged on Friday.
Sarah Ann Stoltzfus was back for a visit at West Nickel Mines Amish School on Monday to hear her fellow students entertain their parents with about a dozen Christmas songs — a scaled-back version of their annual celebration, said Leroy Zook, the father of teacher Emma Mae Zook.
He said Sarah Ann was scheduled to be released from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Friday, three days before Christmas. She would be the last of the five wounded girls to be sent home. Five other Amish girls were killed in the Oct. 2 massacre.
After the shooting, Sarah Ann was able to speak only in the Pennsylvania German dialect, Zook said, but she has gradually regained the ability to speak English as well.
"You get it back the way you learned it, that's what they said," he said.
Sarah Ann's 12-year-old sister Anna Mae was among the girls, ages 7-13, killed by neighborhood milk-truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV, who also killed himself. Three other shooting victims have returned to school, but doctors have said the fifth girl who was shot is fully disabled.
Classes are being held in a temporary facility near where the school was located before it was torn down in the wake of the attack. "No trespassing" signs that line the fence along White Oak Road are the only indication of the crime scene's location.
Leroy Zook said construction on a new schoolhouse around the corner from the old one may take place next month, weather permitting. Township officials have waived a zoning hearing, and donors have offered more help than is expected to be needed.
Daniel Stoltzfus, whose daughter Rachel is back at school after being shot, said he attended the school Christmas party with mixed emotions.
"She's doing good, we're doing good — just trying to get back," he said.
The Christmas party is an annual rite at West Nickel Mines Amish School, with relatives and neighbors invited to watch the students perform plays with Biblical themes and enjoy light refreshments.
But the attack put the surviving students behind in their studies and left them little time to rehearse, so teacher Emma Mae Zook decided to scale back the production this year, her father said.
Parents of other victims, many living within sight of each other in the tiny farming community 55 miles west of Philadelphia, described their surviving sons and daughters as doing as well as could be expected. Roberts let the boys and adults go free, and one girl also escaped unharmed.
Leroy Zook said in the past month he's noticed steady improvement in the students' state of mind, and like them, their teacher has had both good days and bad. On Monday, she delivered thank-you cookies to the local state-police barracks, he said.
Shortly after the school's Christmas party ended, the grandfather of Roberts' widow Marie was securing a holiday decoration on the shooter's churchyard grave site that had blown over in the wind.
Lloyd Welk said he wasn't sure when a permanent headstone will be erected, and that his family still struggles to cope with the pain.
"You can't forget it," he said. "You turn on the TV or you pick up the paper, and there's always something to remind you, something not too nice. I wish they'd let it slide."
The Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which is coordinating receipt and distribution of donations, had collected about $3.6 million as of last week, said member Mike Hart, also the local fire department spokesman.
The committee has already disbursed money to pay transportation costs, lost wages to the families of victims, and for medical bills and counseling. It also made one payment to a fund for Roberts' widow and three children from money that donors earmarked for them.
"After the first of the year we'll be looking at making some donations to the hospitals who waived their bills, to their charity funds," Hart said.
Those hospitals are in Lancaster, Reading, Philadelphia, Hershey and Newark, Del.