Worshipers describe chaos during California synagogue shooting

Amy Taxin and Christopher Weber
The Associated Press

POWAY, Calif. — When gunfire erupted inside a Southern California synagogue on the last day of Passover, Shimon Abitbul recalls he immediately placed his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.

Then Abitbul ran back to the shooting scene to try to help a woman he described as having a hole in her chest and who later died, he said, tears streaming down his face as he spoke Sunday outside the Chabad of Poway synagogue. The congregation’s rabbi, who was shot in the hand, had wrapped a prayer shawl around his bloodied fingers, Abitbul said.

The attack Saturday came exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

John T. Earnest, 19, surrendered to police after bursting into the synagogue north of San Diego and opening fire as about 100 people were worshipping inside. Congregant Lori Kaye, 60, was killed in the attack, which injured Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her 34-year-old uncle Almog Peretz, authorities said. The three wounded were all released from hospitals, officials said Sunday.

Potential hate crime: Earnest, who had no previous contact with law enforcement, may face a hate crime in addition to homicide when he’s arraigned later this week, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. Police searched Earnest’s house and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.

The 8-year-old victim said she had just finished praying and was getting ready to go play with other children when gunshots rang out. Her uncle rushed her and the other children outside, Noya Dahan said.

Her leg was bleeding but doctors told her she didn’t need surgery, she said.

“I was really, really scared,” she said. “I didn’t see my dad. I thought he was dead.”

Her father, 32-year-old Israel Dahan, said he flipped over a folding table as soon as he saw the man enter carrying a long rifle. Then he rushed to get two of his other children to safety.

Face to face with ‘terrorist’: Goldstein told NBC’s “Sunday Today” he had just walked into a banquet hall at the synagogue when he heard loud noises. He turned around and saw he was “face-to-face with this murderer, this terrorist,” he said. He raised his hands to protect himself and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.

There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.

Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” he said.

Goldstein described Kaye as a “pioneering, founding member” of the congregation and said he was “heartbroken” by her death.

A friend of Kaye’s, Roneet Lev, told the Los Angeles Times that Kaye’s physician husband was called to tend to a wounded worshipper and fainted when he realized it was his wife.

Prayer for the dead: Lev said Kaye had gone to the synagogue to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, for her mother, who had recently died.

“The irony is, people will be saying it for her now,” Lev said.

Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel and staying with his daughter and her family in Southern California, said he was still coming to grips with the carnage.

“All of us are human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Jews or Christians or Muslims.”

Almog Peretz, who was wounded in the leg, had moved to California just a few months ago from the Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border, a frequent target of rocket attacks by the Hamas militant group. He said a man entered the synagogue and started shooting in all directions.

“I was with my back to the shooter. I heard a shot or two and then turned around to face him and that’s when he fired at me. I ran quickly, picking up a small girl in my hands,” he told the Israeli YNet news site. “He hit me once in the leg, and I kept running. I didn’t feel it much since there were so many bullets flying by. I heard them, and I saw them right next to me.”