Suspect Robert Bowers faces 29 charges that include a hate crime in the attack

By Jeff Truesdell and Wendy Grossman Kantor
October 30, 2018 01:04 PM
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Credit: ene J Puskar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When he heard gunshots Saturday morning from his home across the street from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, worst-case scenarios ran through the mind of Dr. Jeff Cohen, a member of the congregation.

An EMS truck had pulled into his driveway, “and I could hear the tactical radio of what was going on,” he tells PEOPLE. “I had a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing. … At some point we heard 20-30 shots fired.”

“In retrospect, it was probably the time he was killing people.”

Panic in his household took hold as the police presence grew on the street outside the synagogue, where Cohen had been married and his children celebrated bar and bat mitzvahs. Cohen’s wife was in tears. Her mother was a regular attendee at Tree of Life services, and the family initially could not contact her.

“Once we found out she had slept in and didn’t go to services, we were relieved,” Cohen says. “I went outside. It was very early in the process. There was a police officer walking down the street telling everybody to get inside — of course, I stayed outside for a bit and then he said, ‘Get in the house. There’s an active shooter.’ … These guys ran toward the danger. They were trying to cordon off the area and keep him from escaping.”

As the magnitude of the horror became apparent, Cohen, the president of Allegheny General Hospital in the city, was in contact with his hospital’s staff as it readied to receive victims. “We were told ’11 down,'” he says, “and it eventually became 11 dead.”

Captured by police after the attack that also injured six, including four responding officers, the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, was taken to the same hospital to be treated for gunshot wounds.

Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

“When he got out of the ambulance, I was told that he was screaming ‘Kill all the Jews,’ ” says Cohen. “His nurse was Jewish, and his doctor in the emergency room was Jewish, and I’m Jewish.”

“We just did what we do here,” he said by phone from the hospital on Monday. “We take care of patients. We don’t ask questions. So we took care of him.”

“My staff did a great job,” Cohen says.

Bowers, 46, was discharged from the hospital Monday. He faces 29 criminal charges that include obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs, a hate crime for which federal authorities said they intend to pursue the death penalty, reports The New York Times.

Before Bowers was released from the hospital, Cohen asked to meet with him.

“It was a very quick encounter and I checked with the police officers that were securing him to make sure it was okay,” he says. “I thanked Pittsburgh police for their bravery at the scene. I went in. I asked him, ‘How are you feeling? Are you in pain?’ He was a bit groggy. He asked me who I was. I said I was Dr. Cohen, I’m the president of the hospital.”

“There are so many subplots. I was told at one point the patient threw up on the Jewish nurse, and then apologized to him.”

“It’s just surreal,” he says. “That’s not what Pittsburgh is. What Pittsburgh is are the first responders who run toward the danger to make sure everybody is safe. And the nurses and the doctors, they don’t judge, they just take care of patients.”

“If you told me this would happen outside my door, I would have told you you need medication.”

“This can happen anywhere,” Cohen says. “He goes and shoots up a synagogue where you’ve got a 71-year-old [victim], and developmentally handicapped brothers, and a 97-year-old. These people aren’t threats to anybody.”

“You sit back and you look at this and you start asking, why?,” Cohen says. “And I don’t know why.”

“All I know is it happened and somehow or another we’ll get through this.”