Heart work done by hand

The Monday morning coffee drinkers in the restaurant at Red Ryder's Ryder Motel were guessing when the hardworking Amish and their English friends would finish the new house for Rudy and Lizzie Wengerd. The workers had started digging the foundation just that morning.

Red called Neal Miller into the conversation. Neal is an uncharacteristically talkative and vastly engaging Old Order Amish man who runs a bridle-and-leather-goods store near the intersection of State Roads 208 and 18 in Pennsylvania's Pulaski Township, about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh.

He sipped his coffee, gazed out under the black brim of his hat and made his pronouncement.

"They'll be living in it by the end of the week," he said.

He had worked on these house-raising crews, he said. It is not unusual for the Amish to go from a piece of ground to a framed-out home with roof shingles in 24 hours. That is what happens when 100 people who know exactly what they are doing show up at a building site.

As it turned out, Miller was wrong, but not because the house wasn't completed--it had a shingled roof, windows and doors just 36 hours after the first dirt was shifted for the foundation. But Rudy, 37, and Lizzie, 36, are still living with relatives because their biggest loss in the fire that destroyed their home Dec. 3 had nothing to do with property.

Rudy's brother Neal wrote it down in a letter that is so full of heartbreak it is difficult to read even for the 10th time. It starts with a list of the children who survived and the children who died. Rudy and Lizzie had nine children when they went to bed on that cold Tuesday night, and only four a day later.

Katie, 14, Levi, 12, Neal, 11, John, 4, and Jonathan, 2, were killed in the fire. Anna, 16, Gideon, 15, Dannie, 9, and Emma, 6, suffered smoke inhalation, but Rudy and Lizzie were able to get them out of the house before it was engulfed by flames. They came out of the burning house in their underwear, and that was all they had left after the fire.

Who could possibly know what to say about that kind of a loss?

No one.

But here is one thing that can now be said with certainty: Good things and bad things often live in the same neighborhood at exactly the same time, the tragedy of the one drawing out the warmth and beauty of the other. That is what happened here in the past fortnight. The sadness of the loss called out goodness in all kinds of people.

People here just shake their heads when asked about that fire.

Some of them, including an ancient Amish man who sells handmade baskets from his farmhouse, cannot mention the children without weeping. "I just can't think of it," he said. "I would never sleep again. For children to die like that."

The children are buried under what looks from a distance to be a big oak tree on the side of a pasture just off Cotton Road. If you know where to look, you can see it, but getting there requires a stroll across private property, and out of respect for the family and the Old Order Amish who populate this township, that simply is not done.

The funeral was one week ago Saturday.

Hundreds of Old Order Amish and a handful of their English friends showed up.

Someone (the giver remains a mystery) sent 250 dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which were greatly appreciated. Because the Old Order Amish pray only at home, they were all packed into two houses and a work shed nearby.

The men and the women sat on long benches in separate areas. When the Amish bishop walked in, the men, in unison, took off their black, broad-brimmed hats and put them on their laps. The ceremony, the sermon, all the words were in German, the preferred language of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

The English who attended (and anyone who is not Amish in this area is called English) said it was the saddest thing they had ever seen, even though they didn't understand a word of the language they were hearing.

The five coffins were placed in five rough wood boxes, and the children were buried beside one another in a single grave. There is no marker, but an old farm gate rests beside the tree, a distinguishing mark on a landscape of big old trees, tepee-shaped stacks of dried corn stalks and rolling fields.

You cannot see the grave from the spot on Route 208 where the men started showing up at dawn Monday. It is over a knoll and down a dirt lane. The foundation of the house that burned sat on this spot, but only for a day or so. The Amish men moved in immediately after the fire and cleaned every square inch of the space.

You could not tell on Monday morning that there had been a fire.

They parked their buggies at the next farm down the road and walked to the site, all of them dressed in blue coveralls and each wearing a leather tool belt that carried the only equipment they would need when the actual building began: a hammer, other hand tools, some nails.

The English showed up, too, and not in small number.

They brought the heavy equipment. The front-end shovel, the bulldozer, the little digging machine that scuttled around the site like a gas-powered animal, a generator, power saws, and lots of coffee and doughnuts.

By choice and general practice, the Amish do not mix well with power tools. They are hand workers of the highest order. But they know a good thing when they see it, and in building a house, a table saw and some power tools are very good things--in other people's hands.

Working from plans in their heads, the Amish rushed around the site for hours Monday morning, meticulously measuring and labeling every piece of wood needed for the first stage of the project, the construction of concrete forms.

Then the English made the cuts with power tools. After that, the Amish collected the wood and stacked it neatly where it was needed.

By midmorning Monday, about 100 people were working at the site, the vast number of them Amish. The progress was remarkable. By the end of the day, a cinder-block foundation, resting on a 24-inch-deep concrete footer, was in place for the 20-foot by 30-foot house and the wood storage building behind it.

The Amish have no phones, no conventional means of communication. How did they all know when and where to show up? Some of them had come from Indiana and Ohio. Neal Miller said there is a network. They work the pay phones at nearby stores, using the Mennonite directory to call friends, family, acquaintances, believers, all over the place.

Then everyone shows up.


"It is what we do," Miller said.

And not just for fellow Amish. A decade ago, an English farmer's barn burned down in the next township, and it took the Amish crew a day to rebuild it. It's the same with any disaster. They come to help, always.

It was going both ways in this case.

It costs a lot of money to build this kind of house, even without wiring, which the Amish will have none of. Think of what it might cost to build a six-bedroom home in, say, Wilmette.

Ron Wilson, part owner of Wilson Lumber and Building Materials down the road in New Wilmington, said the house will not cost the Wengerds anything because everything, from the labor to the hundred weights of nails, has been donated.

"These people are our friends," said Wilson, whose family has been working with the Amish for three generations. "After word of the fire got out, everybody started pulling things together. Weyerhaeuser, Georgia Pacific, Owens Corning, they all stepped up and donated. Let's face it, Rudy and Lizzie . . . " he paused, a difficult pause. " . . . Five kids died in that fire. . . . They can never be replaced."

Before the first shovel of dirt was moved, 90 percent of the house was paid for. On top of that, a trust fund was opened at Slippery Rock State Bank, which, local legend now dictates, "holds more money for the Wengerds than an Amish farmer would see in two lifetimes," and there are boxes full of contributions arriving each day.

There is no simple way to measure the outpouring of compassion and concern that flowed from news of the fire and the deaths. Even bowling alleys are collecting money. Red Ryder said people who have no idea where to send things are just dropping stuff off at his motel--canned food, toys.

Red's wife, Jan, put a Planters peanut jar on the counter by the cash register with "Contributions for the Wengerd Family" written on it. She expected spare change. People started stuffing $20 bills into the jar. Strangers who have never been closer to an Amish person than the movie "Witness" want to do whatever they can.

For some, that means pounding nails.

It was very cold Monday night and Tuesday morning, but at dawn, the workers were back, along with an almost continuous stream of big trucks from Wilson Lumber and other suppliers. The Amish and English, only a few English on Tuesday because of the nature of the work, fixed the sill, a wood plate that the house rests on, to its cinder-block foundation at 7:45 a.m.

By 8:30 a.m., the floor supports were in place.

The first floor was completed by the time 120 Amish workers and a dozen or so non-Amish broke for lunch.

All of this was accomplished without even the hint of a blueprint or plans.

How could that be?

An insider, who first demurred with, "I don't know if I should be telling you this," said Seth, an Amish master builder, was in charge, and beneath him were two assistants, and beneath them were three assistants each, and everyone else reported to those guys. All big questions made their way to Seth. The rest, people just knew what to do. There were no disputes.

A plan had been presented to the Wengerds a few days after the fire. They said OK. Then the plan was tossed in a corner someplace, and the Amish showed up and did what they have done a thousand times, building a big wood house with six bedrooms upstairs. It will be heated by a wood- and coal-burning stove on the first floor, with another stove in the basement to heat water for washing.

All day Tuesday people showed up just to watch. Dozens of Amish men, many of them puffing on pipes or smoking short brown cigars, climbed around the structure, purposefully adding whatever was necessary and nailing it in place. One man, with some helpers passing bricks, built a chimney, terra cotta lined, from foundation to rooftop between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Tuesday.

By dawn Wednesday, smoke was coming from the chimney, and windows were installed.

But outside attention caused some problems. Because some TV people had become aggressive covering the funeral, the Amish were wary of reporters. The Amish will not allow close-ups of their faces, so the rule is not to ask. Keeping a distance seemed to be the best thing, along with approaching people quietly and with respect. If they aren't interested in talking, it is like asking questions of a tree. They are never unkind or rude; they just don't play along.

But once they start talking, the Amish are engaging, eloquent and completely frank about answering questions.The story is sadder than the surface facts would indicate.

"Rudy, he has been up against it all of his life," said one man who knows the Wengerd family.

"He is the hardest-working person there is. He moved from town out to that farm in August because, with all of those kids, he thought it would be good for them to live in the country and work a farm."

The "from town" he made reference to was Pulaski, a little village down the road where Rudy and his family lived on the side of a hill, not good for farming at all. They moved out to the house on Route 208 in August, even though the place had been owned by an English who had installed wiring and plumbing.

Rudy, who was a livestock boss at the auction in Mercer, and Lizzie, who sold baked goods at the farmers markets, were working hard to get the house back to its simple Amish roots. They had taken out the wiring and were simplifying other aspects of the building when it was destroyed by fire.

Debbie Wachter Morris was listening to the police radio that night. She is a reporter. Her husband is the Pulaski Township police chief.

"I heard the first report at about 9:40 p.m. Someone driving by saw fire in the house. We got there by 10 p.m., and it was engulfed in flames," she said. The hundreds of firefighters could do nothing.

Rudy and Lizzie and the kids they saved were outside, shivering in their underwear, already shattered and in shock. One of the boys had broken his ankle jumping from the burning house.

The scene was difficult for everyone, particularly the volunteer firefighters who had to sift the ashes looking for the remains of the children. Most of the volunteers went through grief counseling after the fire, the worst of its kind in this area in many, many years.

It's very clear that, even though the Wengerds are expected to move into this brand-new house by the end of the month, the story, basically about the value of tradition and community in a world that sometimes seems to have abandoned both, will not be over for a long time.

Reality has robbed everyone here, Amish and English alike, of any potential for a happy ending.

Neal Wengerd went out of his way at midweek to make certain that everyone knew how much the family appreciated all of the help. He especially thanked the volunteer firefighters and said no one ever gives them enough attention, although the work they do to help people is so important.

He made that little speech at the Mercer Livestock Auction, where he worked with Rudy.

Not a fancy or eloquent man, Neal wanted to say something that would let everyone know how important it was to help one another, how valuable that is for everyone, those who help and those who are helped.

So he told a very short and very private story.

When the firefighters found the remains of Katie, the oldest girl killed, she had the baby Jonathan in her arms, he said.

Charles M. Madigan is the Tribune's Perspective editor.