Nickel Mines tragedy eight years later

By on October 1, 2014

 

Eight years after the Nickel Mines tragedy, life has settled into a new normal for Ephrata’s Janice Ballenger, the deputy coroner who responded on that devasting day.
Oct. 2 marks the anniversary of the Nickel Mines Amish school murders, which left five young, innocent Amish girls dead and the shooter who killed himself inside the school, Ballenger said.
This year, things will be a little bit different for Ballenger who said she will not go to counseling on the anniversary.
“I think I have found my new normal, though it will be hard to get through the anniversary,” she said.
Ballenger explained that she discovered her new normal when she was recently speaking with one of the Amish fathers, who lost his daughter in the shootings.
“I asked him how it was going and he said now he is to the point where he doesn’t want to forget,” she said. “He said it still hurts, but we still have our memories. It helps to talk about our memories.”
She said she realized she felt the same way.
“I’ve found it’s very therapeutic to talk about that day,” she said, “and I’m getting to that point where I don’t want to forget all the good that came out of it.”
The tragedy came during Ballenger’s four-year term as deputy coroner, a job she said she will never again hold.
“When I was contacted by Lancaster County Dispatch to respond to Bart Township, the information I had was very limited,” she said. “I had no idea as to what I would witness that day. I was one of the few to enter the school with the bodies still inside. I had the unenviable task of examining, documenting and processing the dead bodies, as well as field investigation work.”
Ballenger was on the scene from 11 a.m. to midnight. She said she had no idea the magnitude of the tragedy until the following day when her phone began ringing off the hook and news reporters were at her home.
She couldn’t turn her mind off and stop it from revisiting the scene, so she began writing her book of memoirs, “Addicted to Life & Death, Memoirs of an EMT & Deputy Coroner,” which was released two years later.
“Writing the book gave me something to do with my mind,” she said. “Agents had learned I was writing a book and offered me huge sums of money to write solely about Nickel Mines, which I refused to do.”
Ballenger said about a year ago, she was asked to give a talk before a book signing.
“I hesitantly agreed, enjoyed it and got tremendous positive feedback, so I have been doing the talks for about a year,” she said.
Ballenger will be at the the Ephrata Public Library Oct. 4. Rev. Tim and Mrs. Kim Craven will provide music from 2:30 p.m. until her talk at 3 p.m. Ballenger’s personal scrapbook from the Nickel Mines tragedy will be on display for the public to view, as well as some pictures.
“My talks generally are about all of the things in my book,” she said.
There will be three guest speakers, Bill White, a volunteer EMT and firefighter; Gayle Cabral, who lost her daughter in a local vehicle accident and was extricated from the vehicle by a volunteer firefighter that Gayle knows; and Kathy Good-Brinton, who lost her son to suicide, and coincidentally, Ballenger was the deputy coroner on call. They will speak briefly as to how Ballenger’s role as a volunteer EMT and deputy coroner directly affected their lives.
Ballenger also plans to speak more on the Nickel Mines tragedy and its aftermath because it’s so close to the anniversary. She said she plans on giving an update on the current status of the five girls that survived.
“This talk will be the most difficult one for me,” she said, adding she has learned a friend is making memorial pins which will feature the five girls that died at Nickel Mines on them and they will be available to those attending the session.
She also plans to include a five minute crash course on CPR during the talk.
“In five minutes, the average person can learn enough basics of infant through adult CPR to save a life,” she said.
As the anniversary approaches, she takes comfort in another quote from the Amish father.
He also told her the mountains of grief aren’t quite as steep and the valleys aren’t quite as dark and deep but they are still there. She said those words struck a cord with her.
“I will be in survival mode until the anniversary,” she said, adding she tells herself they are not as deep as they were before.
“Sometimes it seems like yesterday and sometimes it seems like it never happened,” she said.
Ballenger said the tragedy is still known as one of the most significant in the county.
“When it came across it was an Amish school, and everyone thought that can’t be right, that just isn’t supposed to happen,” she said. “That just made it more significant.”
To register for the speaking event, visit the Ephrata Public Library website at: ephratapubliclibrary.org.

 

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