‘Unspeakable act of hate’: 11 killed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
From left, Kate Rothstein looks on as Tammy Hepps hugs Simone Rothstein, 16, on the intersection of Shady Avenue and Northumberland Street after multiple people were shot at The Tree of Life Congregation synagogue, Oct, 27, 2018, in Squirrel Hill. Simone, of Squirrel Hill, is the daughter of Kate. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Eleven people were shot dead at a conservative Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday after a 46-year-old man, armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, burst into morning services firing shots and calling out anti-Semitic statements, law enforcement officials said.

FBI officials said the suspect, Robert Bowers, was not known to law enforcement before Saturday and was believed to have acted alone, but that agencies remained on high alert as nighttime vigils took place to honor the victims.

Bob Jones, special agent in charge of the agency’s Pittsburgh office, said were it not for the fast action by city and county law enforcement, the death toll would have been “much worse.”

“The actions this person took today were hateful,” Jones said at a Saturday afternoon news briefing. “This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years at the FBI.”

President Donald Trump, in Indianapolis for a farming convention, said Saturday afternoon that the nation would unite against the tragedy. Earlier in the day, he suggested that if the synagogue had armed guards, the killings might have been prevented.

“With one unified voice we condemn the historic evil of anti-Semitism and every other form of evil,” the president said. “And unfortunately evil comes in many forms and we come together as one American people.”

Federal authorities said they were treating the shooting, reported to emergency dispatchers at 9:54 a.m., as a hate crime.

“This was an unspeakable act of hate,” said Scott W. Brady, the U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania. “Please note that justice in this case will be swift, and it will be severe.”

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Six people were injured in the incident at the Tree of Life synagogue, including four police officers, of whom three were shot, said Wendell Hissrich, director of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety. Among the victims was a 70-year-old man who was shot multiple times in the torso and was in critical condition, officials said.

Law enforcement officials were joined at the news briefing by Gov. Tom Wolf, who pledged unity and called for action.

“Any attack on one community of faith in Pennsylvania is an attack on every community of faith in Pennsylvania,” the governor said. “We must take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We simply cannot accept this violence as a normal part of American life.”

The suspect in the shooting was brought into custody after he had been inside the synagogue for 20 minutes, the FBI’s Jones said. But the scene remained chaotic afterward in the western Pennsylvania city.

“There are multiple casualties. Neighbors are advised to shelter in place and stay in their homes and lock their doors,” Pittsburgh Police Commander Jason Lando told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly before 11 a.m.

Shortly before 11 a.m., the Pittsburgh Public Safety Twitter account warned of an active shooter in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The gunfire erupted at Tree of Life during a baby-naming ceremony, according to the Post-Gazette.

The alleged shooter made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting, CNN reported.

In an update around 1:30 p.m. sharing a hotline number for victim family members, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said there were “multiple fatalities,” with six wounded, including four police officers.

Wolf announced that a shooter was in custody shortly before noon Saturday.

“It sounded like a loud crash in the hallway,” Stephen Weiss of Squirrel Hill told the Post-Gazette, who was at the synagogue Saturday morning.

The gunman, who was barricaded inside the synagogue, then surrendered to police and was taken to the hospital, where he was listed in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds, Hissrich said.

Tree of Life is more than 150 years old, according to its website, and calls itself a “conservative congregation” that is “also progressive and relevant to the way we live today.”

“From our warm, inviting and intellectually stimulating atmosphere to our fun adult, children and family programs, it’s the perfect environment to grow a strong faith rooted in tradition,” it said. A Shabbat service is held at 9:45 a.m. on Saturdays.

The rabbi, Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, is a Rutgers University graduate who previously worked at a synagogue in Ventnor, N.J., now called Shirat Hayam.

Trump said he would travel to Pittsburgh in the wake of the mass shooting, but did not specify when he would visit.

The president called the events “far more devastating than originally thought.” He was in Indianapolis as the keynote speaker for the Future Farmers of America convention, according to Fox News.

Speaking to reporters, Trump speculated that an armed guard might have been able to stop the shooting.

— Staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.