Horror at Nickel Mine: 'But there really was no making sense of it'

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HARRISBURG -- Col. Jeffrey B. Miller would have taken a lot longer to get to the crime scene on that horrible October morning if it hadn't been for his colleagues from the Maryland state police.

The Pennsylvania state police commissioner had traveled to the University of Maryland in College Park to speak at a law enforcement luncheon.

But at 11:20 a.m., his BlackBerry began going crazy. "I think I got 13 e-mails at almost the same time," he said last week.

"Different commanders were apprising me of this incident that had just unfolded,'' he said. "One said we'd had a shooting at an Amish school in southern Lancaster County and said we had troopers already on the scene.''

A Maryland trooper put him in a car with the lights flashing and sirens blaring and took him to a helicopter. They flew me to the scene in about 30 minutes."

He landed just after noon, as the last medical helicopter was lifting off. He walked with troopers over to the one-room Amish school house where 32-year-old milk truck driver Charles C. Roberts had shot 10 girls, killing five of them.

"He'd started shooting at 11:05, about 20 minutes after the troopers had arrived at the scene," Col. Miller said. "He began to execute those little girls."

It took less than 10 seconds. Then he killed himself.

One of the first state troopers into the school, Sgt. Douglas Burig, told Arkansas radio station KTLO recently that Mr. Roberts "shot the girls a total of 13 times, and he did that in about eight seconds." He said the troopers "assaulted the school without any thought of their own safety."

Mr. Roberts was reloading his handgun when a trooper broke out a window and dove inside, Col. Miller said. "Then [the shooter] turned the gun on himself."

Col. Miller said he himself didn't enter the school so as not to disturb evidence, but looking through a window "you could see the desks overturned to barricade the doors, with 2-by-4s across the doors and cable ties tying the wood to the door handles. You can see the sheer level of violence that had occurred.''

Meanwhile reporters from all over began descending in huge numbers on the tiny rural town of Nickel Mines, which consists of four buildings at a crossroads. The largest is an auction house, where state police set up shop. Forty or more satellite-equipped television trucks set up in a field next to the auction house and began making live feeds for the next 24 hours.

Col. Miller gave one news briefing that afternoon and then another that evening, as more than 100 reporters, photographers and producers crammed into the auction house.

"I'd never seen so much media in my life,'' he said. "There was a sea of reporters. I had a hard time [talking about what happened]. A couple times I got emotional, but somehow I got through it ....

"There were a lot of prayers and support for the Amish, and people tried to make sense of this. But there really was no making sense of it. These were innocent schoolgirls and you just couldn't believe that any one could do that to these kids."

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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