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10 years later: Nickel Mines murders still haunt emergency responders

Written by Merriell Moyer/Lebanon Daily News | Oct 2, 2016 1:29 PM
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FILE PHOTO: The field that once was the location of the West Nickel Mines Amish School is seen in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(Undated) -- Emergency responders that were at the West Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse murder scene 10 years ago are still dealing with the emotional aftermath of the horrors they saw there.

Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old dairy truck driver who lived near the school, walked into the one-room schoolhouse in Bart Township, Lancaster County, on Monday, Oct. 2, 2006, around 10 a.m., and attempted to execute the female students, according to an Oct. 3 New York Times article.

He ordered the boys and a few adults to leave before lining the remaining 11 girls up facing the blackboard, and lashing their legs together with wire and plastic ties. Roberts killed four of the girls, and wounded seven more before killing himself. A fifth girl died from her wounds in the hospital the day after the incident. The school's teacher, who remained inside with the girls, managed to escape and call police around 10:35 a.m.

Janice Ballenger, a seasoned emergency responder who said she had been on the scene of many traumatic incidents as an EMT, firefighter and vehicle rescue technician, was on-call as deputy coroner that day.

"I was given an address, and the dispatcher said she didn't really have much information other than that it was a hostage situation with multiple pediatric patients involved, so I didn't really know what to expect," Ballenger said.

As she approached the schoolhouse, Ballenger said, she could see the chaos left behind in the aftermath of the shootings.

"The front yard looked like someone had taken multiple ambulances, shook them and turned them upside down and opened up all the doors," Ballenger said. "There was medical equipment scattered all across the front yard, and I saw a white sheet laying there, and I knew immediately that there was a dead body underneath."

Because state police were still gathering evidence inside the schoolhouse, Ballenger had to wait outside until they were ready for her to do her part.

"I waited several hours, and the waiting was really hard," she said. "There were Amish, mostly women, who were leaning against the wooden fence out front, and they had their faces buried in their hands and they were sobbing. There were children sitting on the ground, and state troopers and EMTs were saying, 'Where is the girl I took care of?' They were kind of talking to themselves, and yet it was eerily quiet. It was horrible."

As she signed in to enter the crime scene with state police, Ballenger said she began to feel a sense of fear that she had never felt before when on a murder scene or at any traumatic incident.

"I was scared outside, but once I got inside the school - which was basically a sea of blood with guns floating around, so to speak, and desks strewn around the room and broken glass was everywhere - that was when I was truly paralyzed with fear," Ballenger said. "That was when I became totally consumed with fright."

While she realized she had no reason to be afraid since Roberts was already dead before she arrived at the scene, she still couldn't help but to be overwhelmed with fear, Ballenger said.

The reason the incident was so devastating to responders was summed up well by former Lancaster County coroner, Dr. Gary Kirchner, Ballenger's boss at the time, who was also on scene at Nickel Mines, Ballenger said.

"Dr. Kirchner, who had been the chief trauma surgeon during the USS Forrestal disaster, was once asked during an interview if this was the worst thing he'd seen in his life, and he said it was," Ballenger said. "He said he saw a lot of horrific things on the Forrestal, but Nickel Mines was worse because the people on the Forrestal were soldiers who knew they might not return home, while the victims at Nickel Mines were young, innocent Amish children, and they had full expectations of returning home that day after school - that put everything in perspective for me."

The emergency responders, including state police, who were on scene at the schoolhouse were invited to a counseling session held at the Bart Township Fire Co. immediately after the incident was cleared.

"The counselors were provided by Lancaster County," Ballenger said. "Our first night at counseling, there were so many people that showed up that we divided into groups."

Each group consisted of a mix of EMTs, state police and other emergency personnel, according to Ballenger.

"They wanted us all to intermingle and hear one another's responses, and how we were all coping with it," Ballenger explained. "After that, we pretty much stayed with the same group through the other counseling sessions."

State police Lt. Leo Hegarty, one of the troopers who investigated the incident in 2006, declined to comment regarding the 10th anniversary of the Nickel Mines shooting.

Once they felt that they no longer needed constant counseling sessions, some group members started to slowly drop out of the counseling, Ballenger said.

"Counselors said there would be a counseling session on the first anniversary, and told us all to plan to come to it," she said. "The entire fire hall was overflowing because everybody that was at the initial counseling came back for the one-year anniversary session."

Counselors told Ballenger and her group that the first anniversary would be the most difficult, and that the fifth and 10th anniversaries would be hard, too, Ballenger said. Initially, Ballenger and her fellow responders scoffed at the idea that they would still be suffering from their memories of the incident in 10 years' time.

"We all laughed at the thought that the 10th anniversary would be difficult, and I know I shouldn't have second-guessed the counselors because this one is extremely difficult," Ballenger said.

While the counseling sessions eventually gave way to what Ballenger calls "a new normal," the emergency responders still had access to counselors if they needed them.

"We always have counseling available to us," Ballenger said. "Right now, if I was having trouble, I have two primary counselors that I can call 24-7, and they will either come out and meet with me, or they'll talk with me over the phone."

Even though Ballenger rarely has moments anymore when she needs to speak to a counselor about her experiences during the Nickel Mines incident, she recalled one moment in particular when she was overcome with grief over the tragedy years after it occurred.

"One day, six years after it happened - I live in Ephrata, so I pass plenty of one-room schoolhouses, and I'm surrounded by Amish - but one day, just out of the clear blue sky, I was passing this school on my normal route to work, and I pulled over and just broke down," she said. "I came home, and I called my favorite counselor, and we talked and she said these things are normal, and that there are triggers, and something can trigger you one day that didn't before."

Ballenger is hopeful that the counselors are correct, and that things will get easier after the 10th anniversary.

"They said it would get better after the 10th, and knowing how bad it is for me this time, I'm trusting these counselors that things will get better after this one," she said.

When asked if she could ever put the incident behind her, Ballenger said that while she could find a renewed sense of normalcy, she would never be able to forget.

"How do you forget counting bullet wounds on a 7-year-old Amish girl's body?" she asked.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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