Worshipers in Hiding, Waiting for Death: How the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre Unfolded

It took about 20 minutes from the time a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and then killed 11 people until he was taken into custody

Photo: Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

As they gathered inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning, to celebrate Shabbat, none of the worshipers knew that they were going there to die.

They could not have foreseen the bullets that would soon pierce chapel walls, the rageful yelling, the blood. And so much death: a wreckage of loss, at the hands of a suspected anti-Semite, in a sanctuary open to all.

The synagogue was reportedly hosting three congregations on Saturday — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life — and none of them escaped unscathed.

Dor Hadash’s Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a physician who had provided care to HIV and AIDS patients, was killed after he “ran … to try and see if anyone was hurt,” his nephew said. The congregation had gathered for a bris, a ceremony to name a baby boy.

New Light lost three members: dentist Richard Gottfried, substitute teacher and Little League coach Dan Stein and Melvin Wax, a retired accountant and grandfather of three.

Tree of Life’s eponymous congregation, who that day numbered about a dozen, was hit hardest. They gathered that cool and rainy morning in the Pervin Chapel, a smaller space away from the large main sanctuary that soon filled with gunfire.

In the end, seven were slain: Toronto transplant-turned-university researcher Joyce Fienberg; Rose Mallinger, a longtime member whose daughter was also shot but survived; brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal; husband and wife Sylvan and Bernice Simon; and Irving Younger, a genial personality known as the “mayor of Murray Avenue.”

As he attacked them, the shooter — allegedly a 46-year-old local truck driver named Robert Bowers, now in custody — spewed hatred, talking of genocide and bringing death to Jews.

The youngest victim was 54; the oldest, 97.

What follows is a moment-by-moment account of that terrible day, based on public court filings, news reports and interviews with survivors, witnesses and first responders as well as other officials.

“These people didn’t have a chance,” says an EMT on the scene soon after the shooting.

“All tragedies are bad. This was bad,” the EMT continues, his voice breaking. “But when a little old lady … an old man … they can’t run away. Some can’t even duck down to hide. What chance did they have? None.”

• For more on the 11 lives lost in the Pittsburgh synagogue rampage, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Shooting Synagogue, Pittsburgh, USA - 28 Oct 2018
ene J Puskar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

‘They Knew It Was Gunshots’

Services inside the synagogue were scheduled to begin at 9:45 a.m. Saturday, though with members still arriving no one was being so strict, the Associated Press reported.

Four minutes later, likely from somewhere right outside, the suspected gunman appears to have made his final post in a months-long campaign of vitriol on the social media website Gab (which has since disavowed his conduct).

First he referenced a conspiracy theory that a local Jewish refugee group was working to “bring invaders in that kill.”

Then at 9:49 a.m. he wrote: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

The Tree of Life shooting began almost immediately after, according to prosecutors: A federal criminal complaint against the suspect states that he was armed with three .357-caliber handguns and an AR-15 rifle when his “deadly assault” began. He allegedly used all three in the attack. (The suspect was actively licensed to carry guns, according to CNN.)

Inside the synagogue, the gunfire sounded like banging — perhaps nothing more nefarious than someone running into a cart and clanging around some drinkware, according to the AP. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, recently of the Tree of Life congregation, believed the noise to be a coat rack falling over, the outlet reports.

Zachary Weiss’ father was also serving as a rabbi that morning. Weiss tells PEOPLE that, when the loud noises started, “a couple people went outside to investigate.”

“Heaven forbid it could have been a senior citizen falling and might have needed help, or something falling down,” he says. “All of a sudden noises rang out. The rabbi was telling everybody of that congregation … to get behind the safe area. At this point, I think they knew that it was gunshots.”

One by one, the bodies fell.

The New Light congregants had gathered in the basement, according to the AP. Dor Hadash was near the front of the synagogue for the bris and Tree of Life was in the the Pervin Chapel, described by Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun as a “gorgeous” blend of “woods and purple carpets” that seats 200.

On Saturday morning there were likely about 75 people, total, inside the building, according to the New York Times.

Ninety-year-old E. Joseph Charny was praying on the second floor when the noises — the gunshots — started, the Washington Post reports. He saw a man in the doorway.

“I looked up, and there were all these dead bodies,” Charny said.

In the chapel, Rabbi Myers had initially fled with some of his congregation before turning back, realizing eight others were still inside.

“I knew at that point there was nothing I could do,” he said, according to the AP.

He took shelter in a choir loft and he called 911, whispering to the dispatcher, thinking his death was imminent.

Outside the Pervin Chapel, “I turned and looked and there was a gentleman lying face down, coming out of the doors … and he had blood coming out of his head,” custodian Augie Siriano recalled to local TV station WTAE. “As soon as I seen that, I turned and headed in the other direction, toward the exit doors.”

And in the basement, more mayhem: A small group had started services for New Light when the gunman fired on them, the AP reports. Gottfried and Stein were killed in a nearby basement kitchen, likely discussing an upcoming congregation breakfast. Others hid in a storage closet.

“I’m just grateful we didn’t have more members there,” New Light’s Barry Werber told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We probably had a number of people on the way, but they hadn’t arrived yet.”

Inside the closet, all was dark — likely a life-saver. Wax, the third New Day member to die, opened the door during a lull in the gunfire to see what was going on, Werber recalled to the Post-Gazette. After shooting him, the gunman entered the closet over his body, but was seemingly unable to make out more potential victims in the gloom.

Like Myers upstairs, Werber also called 911. “Let me be very honest, I was frightened, I was scared,” he told the Post-Gazette. “I have a wife at home ill, and I have a son living in Squirrel Hill, and I didn’t want to leave them.”

As people hid inside the building, Weiss’ father, the rabbi filling in that morning, went to check on as many as he could, Weiss says. Finally, he followed the last step in his active-shooter training, ALICE: evacuate.

At 9:54 a.m., emergency dispatchers learned of the rampage. Gunfire in the lobby of Tree of Life, they were told, the AP reports. Twenty or 30 gunshots. Officers were dispatched a minute later.

Dr. Lenny Weiss, Pittsburgh’s assistant EMS medical director, lives near Tree of Life. He tells PEOPLE he was still sleeping after a late shift the night before when he woke to the sounds of chaos: gunfire, so rapid it seemed automatic, and angry yelling and, approaching the synagogue, police sirens.

“I immediately thought, ‘This is not right,’ ” he says.

‘The Suspect Was Trapped’

Ken Hardin, a 52-year-old attorney, lives across the street from Tree of Life. His home would soon serve as the base of operations for responding law enforcement.

He and his wife were inside Saturday morning when they first heard the gunshots — first her, then he could make out three more.

“Police started coming up and parking in front of the house. We saw that the police were taking this very seriously,” he recalls. “Several were out in front of our house. They were taking cover behind their cars and were aiming their guns at the synagogue.”

Recognizing the situation for what it was, Hardin’s wife took their children to the basement, followed by one of their dogs, who was “very frightened” and shaking.

At their back door: SWAT officers who wanted to be let in and use an upstairs room with a window that looked out at the synagogue. With Hardin’s help, they carried a dresser to the window so they could rest their guns there.

“It became apparent that the suspect was trapped on the third floor of synagogue,” Hardin says, “I watched this whole thing transpire. Other police were stationed right outside my window. It was like you’d see in a movie.”

Outside, Hardin could see more law enforcement and he watched as, after an armored truck arrived, officers “stormed the synagogue.” With his phone, he also recorded several people as they left the synagogue into the safety of waiting SWAT officers.

A day after the shooting, authorities continued to use the Hardins’ home as as command post of sorts, he says. “I was happy to help the police.”

“Our concern is for the victims and families of victims,” he says.

Gunman Stopped as He Fled

It took about 20 minutes from the time the suspect entered the synagogue until he was taken into custody. In addition to the 11 people gunned down, six others were wounded — including four responding police officers, whose courage, authorities have said, averted further bloodshed.

“He had finished, and he was exiting the building,” Bob Jones, the FBI special agent in charge in Pittsburgh, told reporters afterward. “Had [the suspect] made it out of that facility, there is a strong possibility that additional violence would have occurred.”

Instead, confronted by police, a gunfight ensued.

“There was a serious firefight going on inside the building,” says Darryl Jones, chief of Pittsburgh’s fire bureau. “You can hear just by the rhythm, you can tell that it was multiple weapons and they weren’t the same type of weapon, so it sounded like someone was firing and somebody else was returning.”

First responders on the scene formed a “rescue task force,” including three paramedics, two EMTs and at least eight police, for protection, to head inside the synagogue, according to Mark Pinchalk, a division chief with Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services. SWAT officers were already inside.

Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

Inside was what remained after the carnage, Pinchalk says: “There were several dead bodies to the left of the entryway. There were a lot of bullet holes, shell casings. A lot of blood kind of all over the place.”

Trying to exit the building with one of the injured officers, Pinchalk says, the group was blocked down by fire from the gunman a floor above them — who was shooting toward the SWAT team.

Authorities outside provided rifle cover so the group could leave with the wounded officer.

Witness Judah Samet, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor, had planned to be at the synagogue that morning but missed services by about four minutes. Instead he watched from about five cars away as the gunman and police traded bullets.

“The police man was shooting at him and he was answering with more rounds, ‘duh-duh-duh-duh,’ ” Samet says. “He must have been pretty good. I was very close to the police man. If he had moved a little he probably would have hit my car. I had to see who was he shooting. And then he disappeared. I thought there were two shooters because there was one outside shooting the cop. But he came out and was shooting with cops. And then he ran back and kept shooting in the synagogue.”

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According to prosecutors, the gunman shot three officers while a fourth was wounded by glass fragments. In time, injured himself, he withdrew into the synagogue and ultimately surrendered.

In custody, the suspect continued to make anti-Semitic statements, the federal complaint against him shows: “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.”

He was transported to Allegheny General Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds and was aided by the same first responders who were treating his victims, some of whom remain hospitalized as of Tuesday.

“We did our job,” says Pinchalk. “It is a hard thing to do, but legally and ethically that is what we have to do.”


Left behind at Tree of Life was one of the “most horrific” crime scenes that Jones, the FBI agent, had ever seen.

“I was told last night that the room [the Pervin Chapel] is unusable forever because there are probably 1,000 bullets that entered the walls of the building of that room,” Berkun, the rabbi emeritus, tells PEOPLE. “It has to be gutted and rebuilt.”

“We couldn’t save everyone,” says the EMT on the scene. “I wish we could have saved everyone.”

In the days since, with the suspect facing a slew of state and federal charges and a possible death penalty hanging over his case, community members, victims’ loved ones and locals rocked by the proximity of hate to their lives have come together — in grief and in resolve.

“I want the Jewish community across the Commonwealth, and across the country, to know that we stand in support of you as we, together, mourn this senseless act of violence,” Gov. Tom Wolf said Saturday night.

Speaking with PEOPLE a few hours after the shooting, Andy Filipek, who grew up in the congregation, said he had yet to hear who had been killed. “I haven’t seen the names, but I know when I see them I’m going to know some of them, if not all of them.”

“It’s going to be a while before things get back to normal,” he said then. “This kind of hate and these kinds of things are just not acceptable.”

Weiss, with the city’s EMS, notes that as well: the horror, here, of such violence. What he calls “the sadness of this being in our neighborhood and our own city, let alone our own country.”

• With reporting by CHRIS HARRIS

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