Amish volunteers pitch in

Amish volunteers pitch in to assist with repairs atop a La Plata business that lost its roof to Sunday's fierce tornado. (Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / April 30, 2002)

LA PLATA - Among the legions of volunteers who helped out in this decimated city yesterday, the dozen soft-spoken men in straw hats, bushy beards and suspenders stood out.

The Amish had come, quietly but purposefully, to see what needed to be done. Their skilled hands quickly found much to do.

As at an old-fashioned barn-raising, the men from Mechanicsville in St. Mary's County clambered onto roofs to nail down tarpaulins or fasten plywood patches. Others went house to house clearing away felled tree limbs.

Why?

"Help 'em out," said Reuben Hertzler, 20, simply and shyly.

A contractor had to press them to accept money for their work.

"They were offering their services for free; we refused to have them work for free," said Jim Wilson, operations manager for Canon Construction Corp. "We're going to pay. They didn't want it."

The Amish assistance was the talk of the town yesterday. But to them, it's what you do.

"You just go and help," said a 28-year-old who gave only his last name, Stoltzfus. "That's the way we build our houses and barns."

Some said they had responded to disasters in Pennsylvania and in Somerset County. When they heard about Sunday's tornado - most got word while being driven to work Monday - no one had to ask them to leave their jobs to head to La Plata.

"I didn't feel good just staying at work," said Stoltzfus, who runs a sawmill in Charlotte Hall and wears a long beard that signifies he is married. "There's work to do. They can't do all of it by themselves."

So they hired a van that serves as a taxi for the Amish, who do not drive, and made the half-hour trip. Some arrived Monday, others yesterday.

Much of the work they did by hand. But they also used pneumatic equipment - permitted because it is powered by air, not electricity - and gas-powered chain saws. The Amish do not use electric power at home, though Stoltzfus said it is allowed while doing work for non-Amish.

Ben Hertzler, Reuben's brother, said many people had thanked him.

"They sure have," he said. But he didn't want anything in return, he said, munching on a Krispy Kreme donut during a break. "Not more than good feelings."

There was no shortage of that. A contractor, Ronnie McConkey, marveled at their effort.

"These guys are probably one of the best things going on here," he said. "Just good people."