Schoolhouse horror: gunman kills Amish girls

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A fifth girl died today after horror struck a tranquil Amish community in Pennsylvania when an armed man burst into a one-room schoolhouse and opened fire.

Two young pupils and a teenage aide were killed instantly. One girl died overnight and another died today. All female and all Amish, they were shot in the head.

Police officials had said earlier that another seven people, also all female were being treated for head injuries from shots at point-blank range. Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller had warned: "It would take a miracle for us not to lose more lives today."

The gunman, identified by police as Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, a milk-truck driver, was also declared dead by police after they stormed the building. He had turned a weapon on himself.

Roberts arrived outside the Amish Wolf Rock School in Nickel Mines mid-morning, strode inside with a shotgun and a handgun and tried to take a number of children hostage. He began tying the feet of the girls together while telling the boys, adults and teachers' aides to leave. Those allowed free ran to a nearby farm to sound the alarm. Large numbers of the Amish, who still spurn modern conveniences such as cars and telephones, live in Lancaster County, an area of farmland in south-western Pennsylvania not far from Philadelphia. Most are strangers to crime.

Armed police arrived quickly and tried verbally to persuade the man to leave the school, free the children aged six to 13 and surrender his weapon. The effort failed. The man had told a local radio station on a mobile phone that if the police didn't leave the school within 10 seconds he would start firing.

Within moments of police hearing of that call and moving to rush the building, at least 10 shots were fired. All the female students and the female aide were either killed or injured. Police were impeded in breaking in because the gunman had blocked all the exits from the building with nailed two-by-four wood sections. One young girl died in the arms of a state trooper.

Corporal Ralph Striebig of the state police described the killings as " horrendous, horrible".

Mr Miller said Roberts was apparently preparing for a long siege, arming himself with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun and a rifle, along with a bag of about 600 rounds of ammunition, two cans of smokeless powder, two knives and a stun gun on his belt. He also had rolls of tape, various tools and a change of clothes.

Mr Miller said: "The Amish community are solid citizens. They're good people. They don't deserve, no one deserves this." He said it was a "very, very traumatic situation".

Roberts, who had three children of his own, was employed as a milk tanker lorry driver. His wife found suicide notes written to her and to his children earlier yesterday morning, which police officials described as "rambling". There was still no firm indication of the gunman's motivation, but it appeared clear that he was intent on attacking girls.

The attack follows the school shooting last week in Bailey, Colorado, in which a pupil and a teacher were killed, and Colorado policesuggested the possibility that yesterday's attack was a copycat crime. In a separate incident yesterday, two schools in Las Vegas were ordered to be evacuated after reports that a student was seen carrying a gun.

In a phone conversation with his wife, initiated after she found the notes, Roberts was bent on killing young girls as a way of "acting out in revenge for something that happened 20 years ago" when he was a boy, Mr Miller said. The officer added that it was clear Roberts was "angry at life and angry at God". He said it was clear from interviews with his co-workers that his mood had darkened in recent days and he had stopped chatting with colleagues and customers.

Anxious Amish parents and family members rushed to the school, mostly dressed in their traditionally modest clothes and, in the case of the men, straw hats as shelter from the sun.

The shooting will cast the spotlight once again on the Amish community which prefers to shield itself from the scrutiny of the modern world. The school at the centre of yesterday's events is next to traditional farm buildings and grain elevators, creating an almost clichéd scene of country tranquillity, belying the horror of the shooting.

Typically, the building would have had between 20 and 30 children inside at the time of the shooting. Most Amish children end their schooling at the age of about 12 or 13 to begin work as apprentices in traditional crafts or to start working on the farms.

Several young victims were taken by ambulance and helicopter to hospitals in nearby Lancaster and also Penn State University Hospital in Pennsylvania. Later, police began fanning across the local countryside. Officials said the officers were searching to see if any of the pupils may have successfully fled.

Reports said that a number of children were seen running away and it was unclear if the whereabouts of all of them had been ascertained. "They can't find everybody," a local resident, Aaron Meyer, who owns a buggy-building company in the nearby town of Bird in Hand, told CNN.

At Roberts' small, one-storey home, toys were left strewn on the porch and in the yard. A family spokesman, Dwight LeFever, read a short statement from Roberts' wife that said, in part: "Our hearts are broken, our lives are shattered, and we grieve for the innocence and lives that were lost today. Above all, please pray for the families who lost children and please pray too for our family and children."

How the day unfolded

* 03.00 yesterday morning: Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk tanker driver who often picks up milk from Amish farms in Lancaster County in rural Pennsylvania, finishes his night shift.

* 08.45: Roberts walks his children to the school bus, as he does every weekday.

* 09.45: He arrives at West Nickel Mines Amish School, in Lancaster County. A witness says he arrives in a pick-up truck. Roberts was apparently preparing for a long siege, arming himself with a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a 12-gauge shotgun and a rifle, along with a bag of about 600 rounds of ammunition, two cans of smokeless powder, two knives and a stun gun on his belt.

* 09.46: Roberts runs, with the shotgun and pistol, into the school room. He orders the boys, a pregnant woman and three women with infants outside. He barricades himself inside with logs against the doors. He ties up the girls, binding their feet.

* 10.36: A teacher calls police.

* 11.00: Roberts' wife finds suicide notes from him to his three children. He speaks to his wife by mobile phone, saying he is "acting out of revenge for something that happened 20 years ago".

* 11.02: Roberts tells a dispatcher he will open fire on the children if police do not back away.

* 11.03: The victims are shot in the head. Three girls are confirmed dead and seven others are taken to hospitals in a critical condition. Troopers hear gunfire in the building. A witness says the police shouted "Put the gun down! Put the gun down!" When they get inside, the police find him dead.

School shootings in the US

* March 1998 - Two boys aged 13 and 11 set off the fire alarm at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and kill four students and a teacher as they leave the school.

* April 1999 - Two student gunmen dressed in trenchcoats kill 12 other students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before killing themselves.

* January 2002 - A student who had been dismissed from the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, kills the dean, a professor and a student, and wounds three others.

* March 2005 - A 16-year-old high school student shoots dead five students, a teacher and a security guard at Red Lake High School in Minnesota before killing himself. He also kills his grandfather and his grandfather's companion elsewhere on the Chippewa Indian reservation.

* 27 September 2006 - A drifter takes six female high school students hostage in Bailey, Colorado, molests them and then shoots one dead. He kills himself as police close in.

* 29 September 2006 - A 15-year-old student kills his head teacher in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, after telling another student "you better run".