'A very horrific crime scene' at Pittsburgh synagogue

Michael Walsh

It was “a very horrific crime scene” inside the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday after a gunman burst in during Sabbath services and shot more than a dozen people, according to the city’s top law-enforcement officer.

“It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve been on some plane crashes,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said, his voice breaking. “It’s — it’s very bad.”

Police sources told reporters that a man, identified as Robert Bowers, 46, yelled, “All Jews must die!” before opening fire, killing 11 people, presumably worshippers, and wounding six others, including four police officers, during a rampage that lasted approximately 20 minutes. None of the victims was a child. Bowers was wounded in an exchange of gunfire with police and arrested. He is expected to face federal hate-crime charges.

Stephen Weiss, a resident of Squirrel Hill, was attending the services scheduled from 9:45 a.m. until noon on Saturday. He told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette that he could hear the loud gunfire, which sounded like an automatic weapon, as he ran to the basement, where he found other Tree of Life members sheltered in place.

Tammy Hepps, left, Kate Rothstein, and Kate’s daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray a block from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Tammy Hepps, left, Kate Rothstein, and Kate’s daughter, Simone Rothstein, 16, pray a block from the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

“It sounded like a loud crash in the hallway,” Weiss said.

Michael Eisenberg, the former president of Tree of Life, told ABC7 Eyewitness News that he was getting dressed just before 10 a.m. so that he could attend morning services. The synagogue’s vice president called to tell him that there was an active shooter and to ask if he could check out what was happening, he said.

“I tried heading up Shady Avenue to the building, and it was entirely blocked off — 20 or so police cars, policemen with rifles drawn, aimed at the building; they quickly told me to get away,” Eisenberg said. “Just a surreal vision for me. I still can’t process it.”

Rabbi Chuck Diamond was surrounded by reporters from several media outlets in the aftermath of the shooting. He said he had worked at Tree of Life until about a year ago and that the synagogue has had active-shooter drills in the past. But there was no security in place on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.

Rabbi Chuck Diamond talks about the congregation near the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Rabbi Chuck Diamond talks about the congregation near the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

“On Shabbat there’s no security. I have to tell you I always in the back of mind [thought] something like this might happen because of the way of the world today,” Diamond said.

He continued, “As a Jewish professional and with what’s going on in the world, even though we’ve been fairly safe here in Pittsburgh, it’s just something that’s in the back of your mind.”

Aaron Martin, an investigative reporter for WPXI, a local television station, conducted an emotional interview with a man who had close ties to the synagogue and whose father-in-law was inside the synagogue when the gunfire started but escaped to safety.

“My father-in-law was inside. I got married in that place. This is crazy. This is unbelievable. People have to stop hating. It has to stop,” he told Martin.

Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life synagogue, talks to a reporter a few blocks from the synagogue In Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life synagogue, talks to a reporter a few blocks from the synagogue In Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Fred Rabner, a member of the Tree of Life, described the synagogue as a “close-knit community” in an interview with CNN. He said everyone was calling one another to see whether their loved ones were harmed.

“Everyone is just shaken up and upset,” Rabner said. “It’s awful, it’s just awful.”

Danielle Manko, 32, a woman who lives across the street from the shooting suspect’s most recent listed address, told Yahoo News, “He’s usually never there.”

“I haven’t seen him in probably, like, three weeks maybe,” she said. “They kept to themselves is pretty much what they did.”

From left, Cody Murphy, Sabrina Weihrauch and Amanda Godley, all of Pittsburgh, hug after an active-shooter situation at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Stein/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
From left, Cody Murphy, Sabrina Weihrauch and Amanda Godley, all of Pittsburgh, hug after an active-shooter situation at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Oct. 27, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Stein/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Federal investigators have already classified the mass shooting as a hate crime. The Anti-Defamation League said it is likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released the following statement in response to the shooting in Pittsburgh:

“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum strongly condemns the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and sends its deepest sympathies to the victims and families of those who were callously murdered.

“Before opening fire, the alleged perpetrator reportedly yelled, ‘All Jews must die!’ The Museum reminds all Americans of the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism which must be confronted wherever they appear and calls on all Americans to actively work to promote social solidarity and respect the dignity of all individuals.”

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