Healing on both sides of the Nickel Mines tragedy, four years on

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Nickel Mines Amish school shootings.  I’d like to share two items with you.

The recently-released paperback version of Amish Grace features a Q-and-A with Charles Roberts’ mother Terri, whom Donald Kraybill interviewed earlier this year.

In it, she discusses her feelings on learning of the shooting, the Amish community’s response, and how she has interacted with the families of the children.   I’ve excerpted a few passages from this interview below.

amish autumn

We also have a guest post from Professor Kraybill, who shares his comments after speaking with two of the parents of children who were shot.  He offers some updates on the children, the families, and how they remember that day.  Special thanks to him for sharing this with the blog.

The healing process has been very difficult for all involved, as one would expect.  But as you’ll see below, there are bright spots.

Excerpted from Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (paperback version), interview with Terri Roberts, mother of Nickel Mines assailant Charles Carl Roberts IV:

Where were you when you learned of the tragedy?

October 2, 2006 was a beautiful day.  My friend and I were eating lunch on the patio at work as we did every day.  We heard sirens, helicopters.  Even when I’m driving down the street and I hear a siren, I always offer a short prayer: “Whoever’s involved in this, Lord, just be with them, bring healing,” which I did that day.  We finished our lunches, walked back into the office, and the phone was ringing.  It was my husband, “I need you to come down to Charlie’s house right away.”

As I drove there, I turned on the radio and heard there’d been a shooting at the Nickel Mines School.  I knew that my son parked his truck down near there.  “Wow,” I thought, “don’t tell me Charlie was around when this was happening and tried to help with the rescue or something and got shot!”  I arrived to learn that not only was my son not living anymore, but he was the perpetrator of the crime.  This couldn’t be!  This was not the man that we knew, the wonderful dad, the wonderful husband.  Our lives were shattered in a way that no one can prepare for.  There’s nothing that could have prepared me for it, except God knew that it was going to happen, and as best as could be, He walked us through this.  We take our sorrows, and we ask God to restore our joy.

How did the Amish community respond to your family?

On the day that it happened, Henry, our Amish neighbor up on the hill, whom I call an “angel in black,” came to our house.  My husband provided transportation for the Amish when they needed to travel by car, and he was just devastated.  All day long, my husband couldn’t lift his head. He kept taking a towel and wiping it over his head–he just kept wiping the tears away and couldn’t lift his head up at all.  And then Henry came, and he was the first sign of healing for my husband.  He put his hand on my husband’s shoulder, just stood there and comforted and consoled him for an hour.  Henry said, “Roberts, we love you,” and just kept affirming and assuring him.  The acceptance we have received from the Amish community is beyond any words.  To be able to have a community of people that have been hurt so much by what our son did and yet to have them respond to us the way that they have has been an incredible journey.

How do you think about your son since the tragedy?

A piece of advice from a counselor was so helpful to me.  And I think anyone going through a tragedy or a hard time can use some aspect of this.  The counselor asked me, “How old was your son?” I said, “He was thirty-three years old.”  And she said, “From what I’m hearing from you, he was a wonderful son.”  I said, “Yes, he was an absolutely wonderful son.  We never knew that our son was suffering.  We never knew that he was angry after losing his first child; I never knew that he was angry with God.”  Then the counselor said, “What happened that day was a tiny slice of your son’s life.  When your mind goes there, take it back to the thirty-three years of wonderful memories that you have.”

That has been such a help to me, such a consolation to me, and that is what I do.  When my mind goes to the events at the school, I don’t ever stop it from going there.  I can never ignore what happened.  It will never go away because it was so devastating and lives are still being lived in hurt, sorrow, and suffering.  But it’s helpful when I remember that day and still shed tears, to then go back to the other years of my son’s life and flood it with wonderful memories because that’s what we had!  He wasn’t perfect, but he was a wonderful son.  And I just want to encourage anybody that’s going through a trial or a struggle to do that–to use that longer perspective because it’s been so helpful to me.

Have you been able to forgive your son?

Unforgiveness leads to self-pain, and I believe the Bible commands us to forgive.  There was no doubt in my mind that I would forgive Charlie.  However, the anguish I experienced was not easy to deal with.  Comprehending what he had done took days and weeks to absorb.  However, I knew that his actions came from unforgiveness.  And seeing what others experience without forgiving–I knew this was not an option for me.  He was my son, so full of love but blinded to the love of our heavenly Father.  I cannot comprehend how this happened and we did not see it.  Yes, I forgave my son.

amish children nickel mines

Earlier this week, Donald Kraybill was asked by two of the Nickel Mines fathers to meet and talk about the shooting, and what’s come after.  He shares:

October 2 marks the fourth anniversary of the tragic schoolhouse shooting at the West Nickel Mines Amish school, in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A local milk truck driver, Charlie Roberts, took ten girls (aged 6 to 13) hostage in a one-room Amish school and unleashed his anger toward God for the death of his firstborn daughter nine years earlier by shooting the Amish girls execution-style. Five of them died and five survived although seriously injured.

A few days ago I spoke with two of the fathers who have daughters that died or were seriously injured in the schoolhouse. They told me that four of the survivors have had a remarkable recovery and live fairly normal lives despite the psychological scars of this tragic event, which they will always carry.  One of these still has ongoing surgeries to mend one of her shoulders which continues to impair the use of one of her arms.

The fifth survivor, Rosanna, has not fared as well. She is still wheelchair-bound, tube fed, and is not able to walk or talk. She does respond to people with smiles and gestures. She has some relatively good days and other bad days which may be caused by internal pain which physicians have not been able to identify. When she is able, she attends a special public school for children with severe brain injuries. She requires continuous care. Neighbors, both Amish and English, provide assistance to the family. The mother of Charlie Roberts comes to Rosanna’s home about once a week and reads and sings to her.

The teacher and some of the older boys who were in the school that day have struggled with what psychologists call survivors guilt, as they continually rethink the event and consider all the things they might have done differently to prevent the events of that tragic day. As the old adage suggests, time does heal, but the memories of such a horrific event leave deep psychological scars that are not easily forgotten.

The parents of the children that were in the schoolhouse that day meet about once every other month for visiting and mutual support. These gatherings have facilitated the healing process and the sense of being surrounded by others with similar issues who care and support them. On the anniversary there will be no public memorial or service of remembrance. The parents typically meet informally together on a day close to the anniversary to visit and reflect quietly on how their lives have changed since that horrific day.

On the first anniversary, school was closed for a day, and on the second anniversary for half a day. But this year October 2 fell on a Saturday so there will be no special closing or activities at the school. Soon all of the surviving children who were in the school on October 2, 2006 will have completed their education. Some parents said recently that because of that the school will likely not be closed on any of the future anniversaries.  As time goes on all of the families have readjusted their lives back to their normal routines. Some have welcomed new babies into their family and life goes on. But the scars and the memories will always linger especially when the leaves begin to color as the fall turns from September to October.

Comments from Amish on Nickel Mines

Not long after the tragedy, WGAL interviewed an anonymous Amish couple and got their thoughts on what happened at Nickel Mines. It’s no longer online, but here’s a brief excerpt:

“We want to forgive him, but we have to not just do it one time. We have to do it again and again.”

“I have to talk, get it out of my system. If not it would get the best of me “, said the Amish woman.

They spoke about the difficulty of forgiveness, and the inspiration they’ve drawn from the surviving girls.  Four of the five are back in school.


Maybe the ones who died had a purpose, they said.

“It took five little innocent girls to show the whole wide world there is a God.”

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    1. Emma

      It’s just so horrible and sad to think about. I don’t understand how anyone could do something like this!

      By the way, did you happen to see the Lifetime movie for the book Amish Grace? If you did do you have anything to say about it?

      1. Jessica

        Amish Grace

        I just finished the movie and I enjoyed it. I think they did a great job of portraying the Amish well. Sad story, but very well told.

    2. Forest

      I have avoided watching the movie for a number of reasons. First, I saw the trailer and was convinced from that that the directors would not tell the story well, and would not accurately portray the Amish. Secondly, I felt it was wrong for LMN to profit off this tragedy; but I understand they have just released a DVD version, so it appears they are doing well with it. While I think everyone could profit by reflecting on the forgiveness the Amish demonstrated, I’m not sure that this movie would be an appropriate way to communicate that message.

      But I’m not a big fan of TV in the first place…..


    3. Emma

      I agree with you wholeheartedly!

    4. Leanna

      My background is Amish and I have many relatives still there. I tend to be a skeptic of anything ‘Amish’ by anyone who does not have Amish background or close ties with the Amish. Out of curiosity I decided to watch the movie – Amish Grace. Of course I saw inconsitancies in the dress they chose and technicalities like that, and I know this story did not totally line up to the actual incident. Aside from that – the story of forgiveness was amazing – and isn’t that what most impacted the world by this happening? I am not one to often cry during a movie, but this one brought tears to my eyes!

    5. Erik and Don, what a beautifully rendered account of four years later. The parts that are the most touching for me is Terri Roberts reading and singing to Rosanna… wow! that is love and forgiveness, pure and simple. The other part was about “survivor’s guilt.” To think that some of these children feel guilty for living and breathing is absolutely heart-wrenching.

      Thank you for sharing the psychological pain behind the forgiveness story… it makes it all the more powerful.

      Thank you both for this important post.


    6. Which is better-Amish Grace movie or book?

      I would recommend the book over the movie. I have heard that it is a very moving film, but that there are inconsistencies (full confession: still have not seen it). There is a reason the authors of the book distanced themselves publicly from production of the movie, which was outside of their control.

      But the forgiveness message is such an important one, and I think the movie probably has value for that alone. For that matter I found the interview with Terri Roberts to be among the most moving things I have read on the incident. The fact that she also had to face the question of “Do I forgive my son?” is one that tends to get lost in the bigger picture. Most attention has been placed on the Amish side, but I felt Terri’s message was very powerful as well.

      To get a sense of how some Amish have reacted to the book, check this post of a couple years ago, which includes Amish reaction to Amish Grace:


      Here’s a sample comment from a Pennsylvania Amishman, from a letter sent to Don Kraybill:

      ‘It sure is a hard emotional read. To see forgiveness layed out (sic) in such clinical terms while for us it is just a gut feeling…I was glad to see how you stressed that we also are human and struggle with this issue on a daily basis.

      The thought came to mind that this generation can not claim credit for our attitude on forgiveness beings it was the result of our [heritage] but we surely can be blamed if it is not passed on to succeeding generations. Thanks much.’

    7. Christina

      Thanks for posting this. I actually rented the movie last night and watched it because we got a copy of it in our store. I had read the book several months ago and wanted to see how it compared. It didn’t really, so I can understand why the authors of the book would distance themselves. Actually, I’m glad I know that now because when I was watching it I was thinking, “Did they consult Donald Kraybill when they were doing this?” Obviously not. The main message about forgiveness was great. That did come out in the movie. I personally had a hard time with the technical things…costume, haircuts, acting, the set…etc. The actors just weren’t believable as Amish folks to me. But, it is what it is and that’s a Lifetime movie.

      On another note, it was nice to read a bit of Terri Roberts’ interview. I can not imagine how she felt when she found that, not only was her son dead, but he had done these horrible things. It sounds like the whole community is healing. Any word on how his wife and children are doing?


    8. Katie Troyer

      After reading this, I shed tears for Charle’s parents.

    9. The day after the tragedy in Nickel Mines,a stranger came up to us on the street and offered his condolences and prayers. (We later met and became acquainted.) We were a bit mystified – we lived without electricity and television so we had not heard the news, and although visibly Plain, we are not Amish. Later in the day we found out what had happened. I am still emotionally devastated by this sad event; these little girls were martyrs and took their deaths and injuries with courage and faith. I pray that I could do the same! I cannot preach or even speak on this without breaking down, to this day.

      The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

    10. David Crozier

      Erik, Nice rememberance. It is encouraging to see victims, victims familes, and communitity folk support one another. Maybe the angry people in NY can learn something. Go Bless <

    11. Michelle

      I’ve read both books about this tragedy(Aunt Annie’s(pretzles) husband has written one also) and as a kindergarten teacher I want to thank you and the Professors for bring a spiritual light on the positive aspects of this event. Mutal/Community aid is the essence of life and leads to the pursuit of happiness in one’s soul.
      I am interested in a book about Amish folkways and customs; their use of “Pow wow” doctors and herbs, Big Valley Amish (all),traditions,etc All the books I have read just scratch the surface. Any suggestions? I’ve read “Amish Society” and a few of Dr.Kraybill’s , I want to know why they do what they do.

    12. George

      I am still in shock. It was such a cowardly act.
      I will pray for Rosanna. I hope all of you will as well.

    13. Hey Christina,

      On his wife and children, I do not have a lot of background. Am I correct to think that she may have ended up leaving the area? Terri has been forward about sharing her thoughts, but I can imagine that not everyone would be comfortable doing so.

    14. John Hostetler-Amish Roots

      Hey Michelle,

      One book that sort of delves into some of those areas is “Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore”, which is basically a lesser known compilation of various authors’ (Amish and non-Amish) writings on Amish history and practices put together by John Hostetler. There are some offbeat tales and info on daily practices–vignettes on butchering, folk remedies, etc.

    15. Michelle

      Thanks Eric, I’ll check it out. I’ve been reading about the Hutterites as of late.
      And I have to ask …. Who would you rather(be)
      Amish or Hutterire ???

    16. Michelle

      Oops misspelled Hutterite.

    17. Hey Michelle, that is a good question. Going solely by lifestyle it seems like it would be more difficult to live in a Hutterite community–physical segregation from the rest of the world would be hard to get used to.

    18. Chris

      I saw the movie Amish Grace tonight. I knew of the tragic, horrific event, saw the news, heard the stories, and in spite of that I was, all at once again – appalled, shocked, angry and horrified.

      And absolutely stunned by the reaction of the people whose children were killed.

      Perhaps this film does not perfectly reflect Amish life and/or philosophy. Perhaps this film does not perfectly reflect the actions and feelings of the Roberts family or the community situation as it unfolded.

      All I know is that it has affected me very deeply. I think the line was “Hatred soon takes up all the space and pushes love out of your life.” That was a real revelation for me. I hope it is for others as well.

      Anne Rodgers wrote in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette a year after the tragedy: “Dr. Kraybill said, typical Protestant forgiveness theology says God has forgiven you, so you should pass it on to other people,” he said. “The Amish flip it and say, if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. In that sense it leads directly to their salvation,”

      I would say it leads directly to our salvation, as individuals, as communities, as a nation. This is a revelation that for me has shaken my world.

      If this film does nothing else, it is a small – yes possibly imperfect contribution, but a concept that can make our society better, our country better, make our world better, and in a very big way memorialize the lives of those girls and those families in a lasting way that no monument or marker could possibly ever achieve or outlast.

    19. Chris thanks for your thoughtful comments and yes it is a profound thought on the negative power of hatred–a message that hopefully will continue to reach those that need to hear it.

    20. Pingback: Echoes of Nickel Mines
    21. Kate

      Thanks for this post Erik. I just now saw it but it was very touching. I recently read Harvey Yoder’s “The Happening” and I highly suggest that if you haven’t read it. It’s written from a fictional girls in the school’s point of view and had me in tears most of the time. Another good book was by Jonas Beiler but I can’t remember the title. He was a cousnelor to the Amish there. I want to read Amish Grace too. Anyone have any other books about Nickel Mines?

    22. Elizabeth

      I read The book the happening.. And I ended up crying because of what happened.. I remember that day all to well.. My family and I went shopping and we were in a store and it was all over the tv’s.. My heart breaks for all the families that lost dear loved ones.. I did however watch the movie.. Me personally I didnt like it at all. Some of the things they had on there were not true.. And I just assume not pay for that movie or anything for LMN.. I do however read the book everytime I can.. Hope each of you have a very blessed day!

    23. Country Girl who Loves Lancaster County

      Roberts wife

      What I hear from friends is that she re-married and moved away from the area. I can not blame her for if this is painful for us to even read, can you imagine what the children of this man have to deal with? Bless Rosanna, to go to that child’s house every week takes alot of courage.

    24. Sharla


      I would like to know the titles of all the books that have been written about Nickel Mines. I just read The Happening and shed more than a few tears.

    25. Nickel Mines books

      Hi Sharla, the first one that comes to mind is Amish Grace, which you might have heard of already. I’ve read it and recommend it. The new paperback edition has the interview with the shooter’s mother, which is worth reading in itself.

      I’ve also read The Happening, which I enjoyed. The approach the author took of making a composite character from multiple girls’ experiences was interesting.

      Two more which I haven’t had a chance to read are Forgiveness: A Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School by John Ruth, and Think No Evil by Jonas Beiler.

    26. Joshua

      Amish reaction to Newtown, Conneticut shooting?


      Just wondering if and how the Amish might respond to the tragedy in at the Connecticut school shooting. I’m sure similar to the Nickel Mines shooting, they would be forgiving of the killer, but I’m wondering if a busload of Amish would travel to visit the families to encourage and counsel them? Or would this be seen as being too much “in the world” since the Amish as a group were not involved?


      1. Joshua I shared a few thoughts on this today here: https://amishamerica.com/the-shooting-in-connecticut/

    27. Linda

      Nickel Mines School

      A day to remember. Oct. 2, 2006, West Nickel Mine School.


      Remembering the Amish school shooting