Several months after the horror of the Nickel Mines shootings in 2006, Pennsylvania State Trooper Jonathan A. Smith would stop by on what would become repeated visits to the girls who survived.
“I was just kind of amazed,” recalls Amos Fisher, who was a great uncle to one of the slain girls. “The young girls that were mauled in the school, Jon would get down on his knees and they would hug him.”
Fisher and others in the tiny Nickel Mines community are mourning the loss of Smith, who acted heroically during the shootings, and then became a hero to survivors and parents for years afterward.
Smith died of pancreatic cancer Friday morning at his home in Red Lion, York County. Just 47 years old, he is survived by a wife and two teenage daughters.
“He has impacted many different lives,” says John Fisher, who lost a daughter and had another wounded in the Nickel Mines one-room Amish schoolhouse on Oct. 2, 2006.
“He helped ease the pain,” says Amos Fisher, who is no relation to John Fisher.
A disturbed father, Charlie Roberts, barricaded himself inside the school that morning, killing five young girls and wounding five others before killing himself as Smith and nine other troopers stormed the building.
One of the surviving girls, now 17, was among the Nickel Mines families who visited Smith on his death bed and prayed for him in recent days.
Smith, who served three combat tours in Iraq and returned with decorations, was remembered by colleagues and in the Nickel Mines community as a hulking man of 270 pounds who was yet quiet and gentle.
The trooper, who had little contact with Plain Sects when he was assigned to the Lancaster barracks of the state police in 2002, was thrust abruptly into the community when he was among the 10 troopers to arrive on the scene the morning of the shootings.
After hearing shotgun blasts, Smith was among the first inside, using his shield to smash out one of the school windows. He began carrying the wounded girls outside.
For his actions, Smith and nine of his colleagues were awarded the Medal of Honor, the department’s highest award.
But the sadness Smith saw in the faces of some family members haunted him and he found himself developing friendships with the families. Some other troopers did also.
One Nickel Mines parent remembers seeing Smith in uniform, playing baseball with kids in the newly built school.
“Jon was a concerned person and after the Nickel Mines tragedy he would sometimes show up at the fruit stand in uniform in tears. But he went on,” says Amos Fisher. “He kind of looked over us in this area.
“It’s just comfortable sometimes, knowing that someone is looking over your shoulder.’
Smith made a point of talking to the surviving girls. His own daughters, 8 and 11 at the time, became friends with two of the wounded girls from the schoolhouse.
More than once, Smith gave talks inside the school, warning of the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and other topics.
In 2011, in a LNP fifth anniversary story on Nickel Mines, Smith recalled how the surviving girls were still trying to make sense of the shootings.
“I tell them, things happen. Try to do the right thing, do the best you can and then move on,” he recalled.
In gratitude for his involvement and that of other troopers, the Nickel Mines girls and families often baked cookies and delivered them to Troop J around Christmas. Some of the troopers were invited to weddings.
“This brought the whole community closer,” says Amos Fisher.
“Jon was the epitome of a state trooper. He dedicated himself to the community he served,” says Capt. William P. White, commanding officer at Troop J.
He noted Smith’s ongoing volunteering efforts with youths and underprivileged kids in such programs as Camp Cadet of Lancaster County, the State Police Youth Week Camp and Shop With a Cop.
“Jon was a man of honor and integrity,” says Lt. Marty Ziemer. “He was a full man.”
Adds another fellow trooper, “The guy is the epitome of a hero.”