Friday, October 06, 2006

In Amish Tragedy, Autopsies Required, Acceptance & Faith Abound

Dauphin County in Pennsylvania adjoins Lancaster County, where the tragic, senseless murder or wounding of ten school-aged girls occurred last Monday, October 2, 2006. Everyone I encountered this week here in Harrisburg questions and mourns the events that occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, near Quarryville, in Lancaster County, so close to home for us.

In a circumstance of sudden death, the Commonwealth's laws require an autopsy as part of an investigation. The role of the County Coroner in Pennsylvania is proscribed by various statutory provisions, drawn from various PA County Code laws, available online here.
County Coroners -- although elected and not required to be physicians -- are subject to supervision and training by the Coroners' Education Board.

So coroners are trained professionals. But their work is little known. The coroner in another Pennsylvania county adjoining Lancaster County -- the Chester County Coroner's Office -- posted a "Frequently Asked Questions" article, found online here for the benefit of family and the general public.

In the case of the West Nickel Mines School shooting, Section 1237 required a "Coroner's Investigation", as involving "deaths occurring as a result of violence or trauma, whether apparently homicidal, suicidal or accidental. . . ."

An article published October 4, 2006, entitled "Lancaster Co. Coroner Talks About Autopsies", by Valerie Levesque, reporting for KWY-TV (CBS, Channel 3, Philadelphia), reported the role and reaction of the Lancaster County Coroner. See the article online here.
Her description is heart-wrenching.

Even trained professionals were having a hard time dealing with what they saw in that one room school house on Monday. Lancaster County Coroner, Dr. Gary Kirchner, was the man responsible for dealing with the bodies and helping the families cope.

"This recent, is the worst I've ever encountered and I would hope to never repeat it," said Dr. Kirchner.

Dr. Kirchner talked about dealing with the bodies of five female victims. They ranged in age from 6 years-old to 13 years-old. The coroner described the scene of the incident.

"The scene was subdued. It was quiet. There was virtually no laughing and no smiling. It was one of the most somber scenes of this magnitude I've ever scene," said Dr. Kirchner.

The coroner says the victims families were equally as composed.

"They were calm. There was not weeping. They truly believe that God mandates everything," said Dr. Kirchner. Against Amish tradition and by law the coroner had to perform an autopsy on the victims.

"I was mandated to do that. I had no choice. I wish I would've had a choice. They were required to be autopsied," said Dr. Kirchner.
In the midst of our questioning, most of us are stunned by the reaction of the Amish community -- acceptance and forgiveness -- in a private way.
Instead, the Amish are coping with the slayings by looking inward. They are relying on themselves and their faith, just as they have for centuries, to get them through what one Amish bishop called "our 9/11." * * *

"Other than the embalming they prepare the bodies themselves. They make the clothes they dress the body and I really think it helps them work through the grieving process," said midwife Rita Rhoads, who delivered some of the slain children. * * *

The Amish say they are quietly accepting the deaths as God's will.

"They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent ... and they know that they will join them in death," said Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher who has written a book about children in Amish society.

"The hurt is very great," Huntington said. "But they don't balance the hurt with hate."

On October 5, 2006, in a further article entitled "Families Bid Farewell To Shooting Victims", found online here
, KYW-TV updated events to cover the first funerals.

An Associated Press article, dated October 2, 2006, entitled "The Amish: A world apart, strangers to violence", found online through CCN here
, describes the Amish people, whose ancestors resided in Pennsylvania since 1730, and who now number 55,000 strong. It concludes:
"[A]t their core, the Amish believe life is based on faith. And belief in the world to come, where there is no violence."
Donations for victims and their families can be made at any branch of National Penn Bank, HomeTowne Heritage Bank, The Peoples Bank of Oxford or FirstService Bank.

Donations may also be mailed to The Nickel Mines School Victims Fund, care of HomeTowne Heritage Bank, P.O. Box 337, Strasburg, PA 17579.

* * *
Update: 02/09/07:

The Coroner referenced in this posting himself became the subject of criminal charges filed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office for misconduct in office. See: PA EE&F Blog posting,
Lancaster County Coroner Charged Criminally (02/09/07).

Update: 04/19/07:

Life moves on & carries us away from tragedies such as this. Articles posted by Lancaster County Onlines about the tragedy reported the changes, which hopefully allow for healing. See, for example:
Update: 10/01/07:

For an update about the tragedy, at a one-year marking moment, see: PA EE&F Law Blog posting "Healing After Horror" (10/01/07).