The woman wore a brown dress and carried an apple crisp. The first day of the funerals, Oct. 5, she walked along Route 896 near Georgetown when she came to a roadblock manned by Witmer Fire Co. volunteers, running security for the event.
I’m Amish, she told them. Just dropping off apple crisp, on the way to the funerals of the girls killed by Charles Carl Roberts IV Oct. 2.
Firefighters smelled something fishy, and it wasn’t the dessert. They asked her for identification; she had none. They grilled her some more, and finally got it out of her: Media. Trying to sneak in.
It was, said one Witmer Fire Co. volunteer, par for the very strange course.
Roberts barricading himself inside the since-demolished West Nickel Mines schoolhouse and shooting 10 young Amish girls ignited a media frenzy. It wasn’t the first time; late last year, CNN, Fox News and other outlets descended on Lancaster County after David Ludwig killed the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend; then, in April, the satellite trucks and roving reporters were back, after Jesse Dee Wise Jr. murdered six members of his family in Leola.
Both times, the storyline was Murder in Amish Country. This time, though, those murdered were Amish; and two cultures collided head-on.
On one hand were the Plain people, unassuming, grieving, wishing only to be left alone. On the other, cameramen, photographers, reporters, many of them from metropolitan areas, completely out of their element in the heart of rural Lancaster County, unsure about the Amish and their strange-seeming customs.
And so the same ploys that might be used to get the scoop on Lindsey Lohan or Brad Pitt were used, instead, in Nickel Mines.
In addition to the woman with the apple crisp, another woman, decked out in a flowered pink dress and driving a car with Idaho plates, tried to sneak by security, claiming to be Amish.
There were bicyclists in full regalia — Spandex shirts and shorts, helmeted, with backpacks full of camera equipment. Reporters leapt in front of buggies and “Amish taxis,’’ demanding that Plain folks assent to having their pictures taken. Traipsing through residents’ yards, some offered security personnel hundreds of dollars to be permitted to get through.
Said the Witmer Fire Co. member, who asked not to be identified because state police asked those doing security to keep quiet, “It gave a whole new meaning to ‘media frenzy.’ ’’
“Media?’ asked an Amishman in the parking lot of Nickel Mines Auction Thursday afternoon. “I’m going to have to ask you to get off the property.’’
Polite. Firm. But maybe a little fed-up, too.
In the wake of the shootings, the parking lot behind Nickel Mines Auction became one of the media capitals of the United States. Several network- and cable-news shows originated from the parking lot. Fox News’ Greta van Susteren was on hand, as was Charles Gibson of ABC News. NBC’s “Today Show” did a segment live from Nickel Mines, and the international media was on hand as well, including BBC News.
This past Thursday afternoon, the frenzy was at last petering out. The schoolhouse had been razed before the sun had risen, and by noon the last TV trucks in the rutted parking lot behind the auction, at White Oak and Mine roads, were getting ready to pull out.
Along White Oak Road, signs warning “No parking or standing’’ were still up. A stylishly dressed woman holding a WJZ (Baltimore) Channel 13 microphone shot a segment at the crossroads, her heels stumbling on the uneven pavement, her hair blown by the passing trucks. Tourists, too, trickled by; elderly couples with Virginia plates, Arizona plates, slowly drove the roads, necks craned, trying to see where it all happened.
“It’s a good thing they tore [the schoolhouse] down,’’ said Drema Zook, a volunteer with Christiana Fire Co. “Otherwise, this would have become a major tourist attraction.’’
Christiana Fire Co. helped out with security the day Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7, Marian Fisher, 13, Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her sister Lena Miller, 7, were buried. All roads leading into Nickel Mines were blocked, and the media was herded into the parking lot of Georgetown United Methodist Church, a few miles away. A five-mile no-fly zone was established in the sky above Nickel Mines to keep media helicopters at bay. State Police were in charge of the operation; by virtually all counts, they did an efficient, splendid job.
But, said Zook, it was tough keeping up with enterprising media types intent upon a scoop.
“One guy with Canadian [license] plates drove up, said he was Amish, and we waved him through,’’ she said. “Afterward, I thought, ‘That’s the strangest-looking Amish I ever saw.’ ’’
There were a lot of strange-looking “Amish’’ on hand.
Emergency responders throughout the county got a laugh about the “Amish’’ woman dressed all in pink, but there were other ruses as well. The Witmer volunteer told of one person driving up in a car with Delaware tags, claiming to have been summoned to work by a local bank. To verify the story, the bank was called, but no one answered. It was closed because of the shootings.
One actual Amish woman approached volunteers very upset about someone with a TV camera jumping out in front of the van in which she was riding; the cameraman was nearly run down.
And the firefighter told of one photographer, speaking English with a heavy German accent, who set up his camera on Route 896 near Georgetown United Methodist Church, the only spot where photos were permitted. Volunteers were setting out orange cones, and the firefighter happened to drop one near the photographer’s camera, which was perched low to the ground, at horse level.
The photographer kicked the cone out of the way, said the firefighter, so the firefighter returned to his truck, got out a 4-foot tall cone, and put it right in front of his camera lens.
The photographer fumed. State police looked on in amusement. Big bucks were offered for access. “I had reporters come up to me and say ‘I’ll give you $500; just get me across the line,’ ’’ said the firefighter. One local Amishman told of residents, whose homes afforded a clear view of the Georgetown cemetery where the girls were buried. being offered up to $5,000 if they would permit cameramen to set up in their yards.
“It was national news, of course,’’ the Amishman said. “But people really got into our souls these last few days.’’ And in part, said the firefighter, that might have been simply because, for the assembled media, the Amish might as well have been from Mars.
“We had news reporters tell us, ‘We’re out of our league; we don’t know anything about the Amish,’ ’’ he said. It showed when one photographer yelled at three Amishmen to turn around so he could take their picture. Not everyone took a dim view of the ink-stained or camera-toting wretches. The Bullfrog Inn in Georgetown is one of the few places in the area to get a bite to eat or a drink. Dave Lam, one of the owners, said it was jammed with media types, and he found most of them to be perfectly polite. “I think the people in the village felt very protective of the Amish, that [after the shootings] the Amish didn’t really know what was about to hit them,’’ he said. “It was a real clash of cultures.’’
Lam, who fielded calls from the Los Angeles Times and People Magazine wondering what the town was like and whether he knew any of the victims, said that the media was just doing its job, as distasteful as that might have seemed to those who would have rather been left alone. Even the Witmer firefighter agreed, to a point.
“A lot of these [media] people were just camping out,’’ he said. “It’s not as if there’s a Days Inn or a McDonald’s anywhere around.
“You’ve got to admire their tenacity.’’
[joanie's editorial comment: I could stomach all but the last sentence.]
By Gil Smart
Lancaster Sunday News, 14 October, 2006