Pa. emergency responders still learning from Nickel Mines tragedy

2006 active shooter incident "ended almost as soon as it began" and reminder active shooter could happen anywhere

By Ford Turner
Reading Eagle, Pa.

BART TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Gere Doutrich could look out from the front porch of her white ranch house with the red shutters and, if the corn was not too tall, see the little school building where Amish girls and boys would play tag and baseball at recess.

Gunfire seemed to come from that direction on a Monday morning in October 2006, but Doutrich wasn't worried. There was a shooting range in the area. Gunshots were a common sound.

Demolition workers remove debris from the West Nickel Mines Amish School after demolition crews razed the schoolhouse before dawn in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 12, 2006. (Barbara L. Johnston/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
Demolition workers remove debris from the West Nickel Mines Amish School after demolition crews razed the schoolhouse before dawn in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Thursday, October 12, 2006. (Barbara L. Johnston/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Then Doutrich heard sirens.

The reality of what had happened became apparent later. The little schoolhouse had been the scene of a premeditated, mass killing of children, or, in the sterile verbiage of police tacticians, an "active-shooter" situation.

A non-Amish gunman, Charles C. Roberts IV, had lined up girls inside the building and shot them, killing five and wounding five, then killing himself.

The FBI included the massacre at the West Nickel Mines School in a recent report on active-shooter incidents over a 14-year period. Loosely, the agency defined an active shooter as a person actively killing or attempting to kill people in a confined area.

"We just think, 'Why did this have to happen?'" said Doutrich, a retired housekeeper.

She and her husband, Ron, a retired construction carpenter, have three children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The slain girls ranged in age from 7 to 13. Two of them - sisters - lived close to the Doutrichs.

A neighbor had seen Roberts a couple of weeks before the incident, Ron Doutrich said, and the two had gotten along fine.

"There is no way you can tell," Ron Doutrich said of predicting such events. "I don't know if people snap, and if they are going to do something, they just hide it."

Changed quickly

The inclusion of the West Nickel Mines School massacre in the FBI active-shooter report means it has become a learning tool for law enforcement.

The school was in state police jurisdiction. State police Capt. Doug Burig, now a Harrisburg-based supervisor in the agency, was stationed in the barracks in East Lampeter Township that tragic day and went to the school immediately after the first reports of a hostage situation.

Roberts had driven to the school in a pickup truck loaded with lumber, three guns and a stun gun, two knives, a change of clothing and 600 rounds of ammunition. He parked the pickup close to the front of the school, went inside with a gun and ordered boys to carry items from the truck into the school.

Roberts barricaded himself inside, allowed the boys to leave and bound the girls together in a line near the blackboard. He told a dispatcher he would open fire on the girls if police did not back away from the building, then started shooting.

"It was a hostage situation when we arrived and it turned into an active-shooter situation," Burig said. "When we arrived the shooting had not begun and we just knew 10 females were being held."

Police broke into the school and found Roberts had shot the girls at close range and then shot himself in the head.

Burig said state police blocked nearby roads, but the active-shooter portion of the situation ended almost as soon as it began.

"It was so quick," he said.

Increased awareness

The regional police response included an officer from the Strasburg Police Department, based several miles away.

Chief F. Steven Echternach said the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado had a big effect on police preparations for active-shooter situations, while the main lesson of the Lancaster County situation was one of awareness.

"It made it very clear to me that this could happen anywhere," Echternach said. "If this could happen in rural Bart Township at the Nickel Mines school, it could absolutely happen anywhere."

The school was torn down.

These days, Ron and Gere Doutrich can stand in their living room, look in the direction of where the tragedy occurred and still see boys and girls playing outside a little Amish schoolhouse - in a memorial painting by a local artist that hangs on the wall next to their front door.

"That's the way we looked at the school," Ron Doutrich said of the painting. "It kind of leaves a hole in the community."

©2015 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

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