NICKEL MINES, Pa. – Amish families sang hymns, prayed and shared a meal with state troopers and other guests on Monday to mark the first anniversary of a massacre at a one-room schoolhouse.
State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller was one of several dozen people to attend the private, noontime gathering at the home of the Ebersol family, whose daughter, Naomi Rose, was one of five girls slain in the shooting.
"It certainly means a lot for us to spend some time with the families," Miller said afterward. "There's no other place we would have rather been this morning."
Also attending were community members, state troopers and officials from Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 students and faculty members in April, Miller said.
Though grateful for all the help and sympathy it has received, the Amish community is hoping to be left alone as much as possible Tuesday during the actual anniversary of the shootings.
The New Hope Amish School, which replaced the one torn down after the attack, was closed Monday and will remain shut Tuesday.
Children played games and had fun together on Monday and those gathered at the farmhouse shared a meal of chicken, potatoes and dessert, Miller said. He said he made brief remarks at the gathering "to share with them that they are never far from our hearts."
The families are expected to share some quiet time together on Tuesday, Miller said.
A year ago, life here went largely unnoticed by the wider world — and its residents liked it that way. But all that changed Oct. 2, 2006, when the gunman killed five girls at the school and wounded five others.
It was about 10:30 a.m. a year ago when Charlie Roberts, a milk truck driver from a neighboring village, showed up at the door of the Amish school an hour's drive west of downtown Philadelphia.
Roberts carried firearms, tubes of sexual lubricant and the hardware he thought he might need to lock himself inside West Nickel Mines Amish School and immobilize his victims.
In a horrifying attack that unfolded over the ensuing 40 minutes, the 32-year-old son of a police officer would shoot the girls and then kill himself with a shot to the forehead from his 9 mm handgun.
In a brief cell phone conversation with his wife and in suicide notes he left behind, Roberts indicated he was angry with God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997 and riven by the guilt of having molested two girls 20 years earlier.
He seems to have prepared for a lengthy siege, but if that was the case, his plan was foiled when teacher Emma Mae Zook dashed out the door to summon help. About 20 minutes after the siege began, the first state troopers were on the scene.
Their sudden appearance led a panicked Roberts to insist they back off. There was virtually no time for negotiation before he abruptly shot the girls in rapid succession.
Roberts left behind a puzzling trail of evidence that authorities today find as senseless as the day the attack occurred. He had no criminal history, had never been treated for mental illness and there seems to be nothing to substantiate his claim of having molested his two relatives decades earlier.
In Nickel Mines, where life had been marked by the predictable rhythms of the growing season and the church calendar, Roberts' attack made the modern world suddenly inescapable.
The usual quiet was shattered by the arrival of hundreds of police and emergency workers and the ominous sound of medical and news helicopters overhead.
Amid the chaos and heartbreak, the Amish instinctively reached out to Roberts' widow, Marie, the three children he left behind and his parents. Even before their own five daughters had been buried, the victims' families were showing Roberts' family kindness, condolence and compassion.
At the end of the week, a series of horse-and-buggy corteges carried the dead girls' coffins from private funeral ceremonies, past the Roberts' home and on to freshly dug graves in the Bart Township Amish cemetery.
Roberts' family quietly laid him to rest in an unmarked grave five days after the murders, beside the body of his late daughter in Georgetown.
About half the 75 mourners at Roberts' graveside were Amish, including family members of victims, and the Amish later designated a portion of the millions in donations they have received to benefit Roberts' children and widow.
On Oct. 12, the Amish had the schoolhouse torn down before dawn, converting the land where it stood into pasture. It only took a few months to erect a new and more secure school nearby.
Four of the five wounded girls returned to class before the end of December, although the fifth and most seriously injured suffered a head wound that left her completely disabled. She is confined to a wheelchair and is fed by a tube.
One girl recently had an operation to help restore function in her shoulder and arm, and another has been plagued by vision problems.