Gunman Robert Bowers only needed 20 minutes to sow terror at the Tree of Life synagogue in the US city of Pittsburgh, where congregants had gathered peacefully for services marking Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
Shortly before 10 a.m., the 46-year-old Bowers penned one more virulent anti-Semitic message on the social network Gab, and then burst into the synagogue armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, reportedly yelling, “All Jews must die.”
Stephen Weiss, a member of the congregation who was inside the building, told the Tribune-Review newspaper he heard dozens of shots coming from the front lobby.
“We had services going on in the chapel when we heard a loud noise in the lobby area,” he said. “I recognized it as gunshots.”
Like any other Saturday, people from three different congregations were scattered throughout rooms in the building, located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that is historically the heart of Jewish life in greater Pittsburgh.
Bowers entered a room where a brit milah (circumcision) ceremony was taking place. He rained bullets, killing 11 people, all of them adults. The ADL called it the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history.
Weiss told the Post Gazette, another Pittsburgh newspaper, that he ran to the basement, where people were sheltering in place, and then went back to the main sanctuary before fleeing.
The attack left six others wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
Authorities said they would release the names of the victims on Sunday morning. One victim was named as Dan Stein, 71, a grandfather who would regularly lead services for the New Light congregation at the Tree of Life synagogue.
Paul Leger told the Tribune-Review that his brother Daniel Leger, 70, had been shot in the chest, but doctors were “cautiously optimistic.” Daniel Leger, who is married and has two sons, was scheduled to lead a service Saturday morning and would open the synagogue doors every week.
Neighbors said they heard gunshots and gave shelter to fleeing worshipers, describing a close-knit neighborhood.
“Amid the kosher grocery and the kosher restaurant and the kosher-style deli, and where the knotted fringes of tzitzit are familiar features at the corners of the garments of the Orthodox who walk through the area just before sundown Friday evenings — it didn’t require social media for the news of the shooting at the Tree of Life to spread,” wrote Post Gazette editor David Shribman, who lives near the synagogue. “The news was in the air, along with the shock and the sadness, the grief and the gruesome details, the worst of which were confirmed within hours.”
Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at Tree of Life, said not many people would normally be at the synagogue at 10 a.m.
Diamond said the building is locked during the week, and is outfitted with security cameras. “But on Sabbath it’s an open door,” he said.
“You know, you’re always worried that something would happen,” said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light Congregation, which meets at Tree of Life. Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday’s service.
“But you never dream that it would happen like this,” Snider added. “Just never ever dream that it would happen like this.”
“It is a very horrific crime scene,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen. I’ve been on plane crashes.”
As he attempted to leave the synagogue, Bowers found himself face-to-face with a uniformed officer calling for reinforcement.
He barricaded himself on the building’s third floor and was taken into custody after a shootout with police.
Twenty minutes after his first shot, Bowers surrendered to officers, continuing to rant about wanting Jews dead.
He was hospitalized with multiple injuries but authorities said he was in “fine” condition. Authorities said he was not known to police, but had left a large footprint online filled with anti-Jewish hate.
Hours after the massacre, thousands in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood gathered to sing Jewish songs, light candles and mourn.
The tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, is the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The facade of the fortress-like concrete building is punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 people.
“Pittsburgh is very unique as far as its Jewish community goes, ” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “We just finished a community study and it shows that a little over 50 percent of the Jewish community of Greater Pittsburgh lives in or around this little neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. It’s a high concentration of the Jewish community. It makes it very special, actually.”
Michael Eisenberg, a former president of the synagogue, said officials at Tree of Life had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.
Ben Opie, 55, lives in front of the synagogue and told journalists his wife was heading out for a volunteer shift when police demanded she stay inside.
Two hours later, Opie’s voice was still trembling.
“It’s just,” he said before pausing. “Sorry, it’s shaking me more than usual.”