Ten years later: Remembering the Nickel Mines Amish school massacre

By on September 28, 2016
Janice Ballenger as deputy coroner was photographed praying following her experience at the West Nickel Mines Amish school massacre (photo courtesy of The Washington Post).

Janice Ballenger as deputy coroner was photographed praying following her experience at the West Nickel Mines Amish school massacre (photo courtesy of The Washington Post).

On Monday, Oct. 2, 2006, I stood inside the West Nickel Mines Amish one-room school house, desperately searching for one square tile on the floor that didn’t have a speck of bright red blood on it. I had to do something other than look at the surreal scene, so out of character for this gentle, rural community. People don’t shoot Amish and Amish don’t shoot people. I trembled in fear. My counselor later told me that I was absorbing the fear and fright felt by the 10 young, innocent girls that had been bound together and shot, execution style, in this small school house. My mind and body were paralyzed. I felt that the floor would collapse under me and I would fall down a dark, bottomless shaft with no one there to catch me.

As the deputy coroner assigned to the horrific task of examining the dead bodies, I knew that I had to maintain my composure and professionalism. For 13 hours I somehow managed to do that. Still frantically scrutinizing the tile floor, I happened to notice a cute, colored picture of a house with scissors lying next to it. It was untouched by blood, but on the floor directly next to it was a shotgun and handgun. I wanted to cry.

I thought back to how the day had unfolded. It was a picture perfect autumn Monday morning. As I drove to work, I thanked God for His gift of nature’s beauty. While sitting at my desk, I envisioned eating lunch at the picnic table and absorbing the brilliant orange and red leaves on this magnificently beautiful day. That didn’t happen. Before lunch, a county dispatcher called me to respond to a school on Mine Road in Bart Township. She didn’t have much information other than it involved a hostage situation with multiple pediatric deaths. As I headed out, my main concern was finding this scene in a timely manner. Having lived in Ephrata all of my life, the area I was trying to find seemed like it was on another planet. I pulled over and called a friend to help me with my directions. He told me it was announced on the radio that it was not at some large high school, so parents had no reason to worry. Having no idea what he was talking about, I called Angie and asked her to please put a tape in her VCR, just in case it was on our local news that evening. I went back to driving. As I drove over a crest in Nickel Mines, a hamlet in Bart Township, I noticed helicopters flying out from a one-room Amish school house on my left. A fire police officer helped me park. While gathering my camera and work satchel, I noticed a white sheet on the front yard of the school. I immediately knew there was a dead body underneath it.

A state trooper had me sign his entrance log and requested that I wait. I waited. I waited for my peers that had been dispatched to assist me. As I watched the Salvation Army canteen arrive, I felt guilty for all of the times that I had ignored their bell ringers. Mass media descended upon the scene. We were informed of the event that had occurred in this quaint school. I ran my plan of action by Dr. Kirchner. He said it sounded like I had it all under control. But fright, which I always leave inside my vehicle on any call, now consumed me.

The crime scene at Nickel Mines.

The crime scene at Nickel Mines.

We were summoned to examine the body under the white sheet in the front yard. We worked under a tent of tarps put together by Bart Fire Company to guard the press from getting any pictures of this beautiful, innocent seven year old girl. Examining her body was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. She had beautiful, long brown hair and the most stunning dark eyelashes I have ever seen. While dictating her bullet holes and wounds, I realized they were most likely all Amish children and all dressed the same. At 3:10 p.m., it broke my heart to write ‘Jane Doe A’ on her toe tag. Later that evening, we learned she was Naomi Rose.

Returning to waiting, I watched and listened. State troopers and emergency personnel stood in daze-like trances, trying to breathe while covered in bright red blood-soaked clothes and filled with heartache. Groups of Amish adults leaned on the wooden fence for support. Many had their heads downcast, buried in their hands and gently sobbing. But I could hear them silently screaming, suffocating with each breath they took, while holding onto their pride and forgiveness. It was like watching it rain through a dusty window pane.

My phone startled my waiting. This time it wasn’t a state trooper, it was Tina. Not realizing that I had to be taking calls, she planned on leaving a message. I will never forget and will always cherish her few words, “Janice, I didn’t think you’d answer. Hang in there buddy, we’re praying for you.”

We were now told to enter the school. West Nickel Mines Amish School was approximately 30 by 34 feet, but it seemed much smaller. The horrific sight is forever etched in my mind. There was broken glass everywhere. Desks were in disarray. Guns and ammunition were floating in a sea of blood. For a fleeting moment I glanced at the dead shooter and I wanted to scream, “Why would you do this heinous crime against these young, innocent girls?” But I knew that I had to let that go. Immediately after glancing at his body, I noticed a smiley face on the wall with “Visitors bring JOY to our school!” written on it. No, this visitor didn’t bring joy to their school! After removal of the last body, while parents were at the hospitals with their children, or grieving in their homes, I somehow made it home. According to my notes, I left the scene around 11:30 p.m. I have no recollection of driving home. I do remember being at home, doing my reports and downloading the pictures. I remember calling Angie and asking her how to spell “black socks.” I don’t know if I slept. On Tuesday I must have returned to Bart Township because on Wednesday I stopped at a Turkey Hill and saw my picture plastered on the front page of The Washington Post. Then I remembered sitting on the altar in a church that had a sign out front, “Open For Prayer.” After I sat down, I started praying, again, that this was all a nightmare. Then I cried. Once my first tear broke free, the rest flowed in an unbroken stream.

Dr. Kirchner asked me to be the official spokesperson for the coroner’s office. For the next two weeks I jumped from counseling to doing interviews to crying myself to sleep. I would be remiss not to mention the kindness and true caring extended by reporters David Muir and Ann Curry. They weren’t like the others, just doing their job. They displayed true compassion. Someone suggested that I “put it behind me” and move on. You can’t do that! In counseling we learned that we have to find our “new normal.” I accepted that.

Charles Carl Roberts IV killed five girls aged 7 to 13 before committing suicide inside the school. The forgiveness shown by the Amish is immeasurable. I question my own ability to forgive as they do. While they mourn and grieve like others do, they then turn it over to God. Through my faith and counseling I struggled to find my new normal. I felt guilty when I felt happy. I turned to writing my book of memoirs to stop my mind from re-visiting the scene. For two years, writing occupied my mind when I wasn’t working. Agents learned I was writing a book and I refused huge sums of money to write solely about Nickel Mines. By self-publishing, I was able to share my journey as a volunteer EMT/FF/VRT and deputy coroner. Before one book signing, I was asked to speak a little (an hour) about my adventure through life. Realizing that my talk had helped me, I began doing them on a regular basis at no charge.

Here I am, 10 years later, still doing my talks and living my new, normal life. I have been on the calmest carousels and the scariest roller coasters. Now working with addicts at Retreat at Lancaster County, sometimes I might be doing something as simple as helping a patient fix her long brown hair and I wonder to myself … is this what Naomi might look like today? But I’ve put my broken pieces back together and I’ve learned to “Never. Lose. Hope.”

Please support me at my talk on Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Ephrata Public Library. This is the day before the 10th anniversary of the massacre. Ephrata graduate Shaniece Ebelhar will perform cello music from 2 p.m. until my talk at 3. Guests Gayle West-Cabral and Kathy Good-Brinton will briefly share their tragic experiences. I will have my personal scrapbook from Nickel Mines and newspapers on display for public viewing. Books will be available for purchase/signing. Register through the library online or by calling 738-9291. Without your support, I don’t know where I’d be today. Thank you.

Janice may be contacted via email at janiceballenger@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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