PITTSBURGH – At least 11 people were killed in the shooting attack on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, according to local news reports.
At least six other people were wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
Officials have yet to confirm the number of fatalities; the Associated Press cited “people with knowledge of the investigation” saying at least 10 people were killed.
The suspected gunman, identified as 46-year-old Pittsburgh resident Robert Bowers, is said to have yelled “All Jews must die” as he entered the Conservative synagogue in the city and began firing during a brit milah ceremony. He engaged in a shootout with responding police officers and barricaded himself inside the building before surrendering. He is said to have been injured, and reportedly crawled toward police.
City officials said the shooting was being investigated as a federal hate crime. It comes amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, including the series of pipe bombs mailed over the past week to prominent Democrats and former officials.
Bowers is said to have been armed with an AR-15 rifle and two handguns, according to reports.
He was not previously known to law enforcement.
Bowers is said to have written anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant conspiracies on Gab, an alt-right social network similar to Twitter. His last reported message, hours before the shooting Saturday, read: “HIAS likes to bring invaders to kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
HIAS, formerly Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, is an American-Jewish nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and immigrants.
Being very clear for media picking this up, this man Robert Bowers was named on police scanner, found his profile, last post was this and his social media account was wiped while I was archiving it. His account was anti-Semitic conspiracies and anti-Trump posts/conspiracies. pic.twitter.com/uRNfWAEWLW
— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) October 27, 2018
Another post from Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers. His profile clearly illustrates that he’s a Nazi, admired Hitler, hates Trump, believes Trump is controlled by Jews, he did not vote for Trump. That’s all I was able to archive before his profile was wiped. Sickening. pic.twitter.com/DPQfGuWDzY
— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) October 27, 2018
Bowers’ Gab bio read: “Jews are the children of Satan.” The profile has since been taken down.
— Laura Rozen (@lrozen) October 27, 2018
Bob Jones, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Pittsburgh, says investigators believe Bowers was acting alone. He said Bowers’s full motive still isn’t known.
Jones said the scene of Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation was “the most horrific crime scene I have seen” in 22 years with the FBI.
“It is a very horrific crime scene. It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen and I’ve been on some plane crashes,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director.
The attack took place during a brit milah ceremony, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Hissrich said children were not among the fatalities.
The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Squirrel Hill has long been the center of Jewish life in Pittsburgh and has one of the most densely-populated Jewish communities in America. Tree of Life is a Conservative congregation that is about 150 years old.
Helicopters circled the scene, police vans blocked every street, and heavily-armed Pittsburgh SWAT teams checked and re-checked weapons at the site, several hours after the incident.
Synagogues hold weekly religious services for congregants and visitors on the Sabbath, and service was in session at the time of the shooting at approximately 10:00 am local time.
Michael Eisenberg, a former president of the Tree of Life Synagogue, told KDKA that there were approximately 50 people inside the synagogue at the time of the shooting.
“At 9:45 there were three simultaneous congregations’ services that were being held,” he told the news station. “In the main part of the building, The Tree of Life has a service that has about 40 people in it. Just below that there is a basement area where New Life congregation would have been having their Shabbat service. There would have been 30-40 people. Just adjacent to Tree of Life’s service area, a congregation was in the rabbi’s study room and they would have had approximately 15 people in there.”
CBS Pittsburgh reported that police received several calls from people inside the synagogue as the shooting unfolded.
Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done “lots of training on things like active shooters, and we’ve looked at hardening facilities as much as possible.”
“This should not be happening, period,” he told reporters at the scene. “This should not be happening in a synagogue.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf called the shooting an “absolute tragedy.”
“We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life,” Wolf said. “But we have been saying ‘this one is too many’ for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
US President Donald Trump tweeted that the attack was “far more devastating than originally thought.”
Events in Pittsburgh are far more devastating than originally thought. Spoke with Mayor and Governor to inform them that the Federal Government has been, and will be, with them all the way. I will speak to the media shortly and make further statement at Future Farmers of America.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2018
He also spoke to reporters later Saturday at Andrews Air Force Base before traveling to Indianapolis, saying the violence “has to stop.”
Trump also said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard and suggested that might be a good idea for all churches and synagogues.
He also said such shooters should receive the death penalty and “suffer the ultimate price.”
Speaking at a campaign event later Saturday, the US president hit out at a climate of “hate” in America and beyond — while his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, denounced a “depraved” attack and Vice President Mike Pence called it “an assault on our freedom of religion.”
“There must be no tolerance for anti-Semitism,” the president told supporters at a campaign event for next month’s midterm elections. “This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil, hard to believe, and, frankly, something that is unimaginable.”
“Our nation and the world are shocked and stunned by the grief,” he said.
Erez Rimoni, an Israeli in town on business, was visibly shaken as he waited at the police perimeter on Shady Avenue.
“I have a friend in this synagogue,” Rimoni told The Times of Israel. “I don’t know what’s happened to my friend.”
“It’s crazy,” said Arnold Freedman, a Pittsburgh resident who lives a few houses away, and attends Tree of Life, though not Saturday morning. “We have a crazy world now.”
Glenn Harlow said he helps provide security “for every synagogue in town,” and is a member of Tree of Life.
“At Shabbos [Saturday], a guy just walks in…it’s very ugly over there,” he told The Times of Israel. “No, the gun laws don’t help stop them. You have to harden the perimeter. You have to monitor who comes and goes. You have to have a human presence.”
“The security they had was not designed for this,” he added. “It was designed for intrusion, vandalism, fire. There are buttons throughout to summon the authorities.”
Ann Greathouse was attending the Shaare Torah synagogue nearby when the shooting happened.
“We went into the implementation of the UJF’s (United Jewish Federation’s security) plan,” she said. “All the doors and windows were locked, and a team was watching the security cameras.”
“The president talks about people being armed,” said Harlow. “That doesn’t stop anything. The guy just walked in. The door is open.”
It is not yet clear what security measures the synagogue had in place.
Agencies contributed to this report.