‘I’m going to die:’ Survivors relive horrors at Tree of Life
PITTSBURGH – Up in the choir loft, alone, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers whispered to a 911 dispatcher on his cellphone.
Below him, down in the sanctuary, eight of his congregants had been felled by a gunman’s bullets. Up here, though, Myers couldn’t see them – or any of the other horrors going on beyond his hideaway. He could only listen. He waited for another round of semiautomatic gunfire, but all was silent. Then he heard what he feared even more.
Could that be footsteps?
Myers rushed into the loft’s bathroom, barricading himself inside.
Days earlier he had used a blog posting to urge members of his Tree of Life congregation to celebrate life’s moments while they had the chance: “None of us can say with certainty that there is always next year,” he wrote. Now, Myers wondered if he should hang up with 911 and make a video to tell his wife and children he loved them, while he still had time.
“I’m going to die,” he thought.
Saturday morning – the time when Jews in communities like this one come together to celebrate the miracle of the earth’s creation and the day of rest that followed – had barely begun.
As a light rain fell over the Tudors and Victorians of Pittsburgh’s leafy Squirrel Hill, the parking lot at the Tree of Life Synagogue had been slow to fill in. There was nothing unusual about that. Officially, services begin at 9:45 for Tree of Life and the two other congregations that share its large stone building – New Light and Dor Hadash. Worshippers from all three were filtering in, many of them older, taking their time.
The synagogue has long been one of the touchstones of Squirrel Hill, a rolling neighborhood about five miles east of downtown that is the center of the city’s large Jewish community. Founded in 1864, Tree of Life prides itself as a warm, welcoming place, “where even the oldest Jewish traditions become relevant to the way our members live today,” it says on its website.
On Saturdays, the day of the Jewish Sabbath, its doors are unlocked and open to all. On this day, the New Light congregation gathered in a basement room. Upstairs, toward the front of the building, the worshippers of Dor Hadash prepared for a ceremony to name a newborn boy. And in the main sanctuary, Myers convened about a dozen of his congregants.
Outside the building, though, Robert Gregory Bowers was also mindful of the Saturday rituals. For months, the 46-year-old truck driver had been posting angry rants against Jews on the Gab social media site, to little apparent notice. He blamed Jews for plotting against society, contaminating it in order to destroy it.
At 9:49 a.m. Saturday, he posted again.
“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” Bowers wrote. “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
Inside the synagogue, New Light’s rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, was just a few minutes into morning prayers when his congregants heard a loud bang. Barry Werber, an Air Force vet who was there to help mark the anniversary of his mother’s death, thought at first that someone might have walked into a cart upstairs stacked with glassware and whiskey meant for the baby-naming ceremony. To Myers, it sounded like somebody in the hallway had knocked over a coat rack.
Then the sounds came again, this time in a burst.
Werber and other worshippers opened a door leading into the basement hallway. A body lay on the staircase. Their rabbi quickly closed the door and pushed Werber and fellow congregants Melvin Wax and Carol Black into a large supply closet. As gunshots echoed upstairs, Werber dialed 911 but was too afraid to say anything, for fear of making any noise.
The first call to an emergency dispatcher came in at 9:54: Active shooter at Tree of Life. Twenty shots fired in the lobby, maybe 30.
Nine minutes had passed since worship was scheduled to begin.
In the main sanctuary, Myers told his congregants to drop to the floor. “Don’t move. Be quiet.”
Although he was their leader, Myers was still new to Tree of Life. A native of Newark, New Jersey, he had been trained as a cantor – the clergyman charged with leading Jewish congregations in song. For years, he worked in the New York area, then near Atlantic City. But watching some synagogues close and others consolidate, he decided to broaden his resume and sought ordination.
When his previous congregation eliminated the cantor’s post because of budgetary pressures, Myers found his first job as a rabbi in a city he knew little about. He and his wife, Janice, had moved to Pittsburgh a year earlier to start a new and somewhat unlikely chapter for a couple whose two children were already grown.
Now, still near the front of the sanctuary, he led a group of worshippers through some nearby doors that he knew would get them outside, to safety.
Then he turned back. Eight congregants remained inside, near the back of the room closest to the lobby – where the gunfire was getting louder.
“I knew at that point there was nothing I could do,” Myers would say later.
From the front of the sanctuary, Myers scrambled up the narrow stairs leading to the choir loft.
Unseen to him, the stocky, square-jawed Bowers stalked the building, armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle and three handguns.
In an upstairs bathroom, custodian Augie Siriano heard four or five distinctive pops and went to investigate, threading through a sanctuary and lobby toward the chapel where Tree of Life’s service had been cut short.
“I turned and looked and there was a gentleman lying face down, coming out of the doors of the chapel, and he had blood coming out of his head,” Siriano said in an interview with Pittsburgh television station WTAE. “As soon as I seen that, I turned and headed in the other direction, toward the exit doors.”
In the pitch black of the basement closet, all turned silent. Could it be over? Werber and the others hidden there waited, before the elderly Wax decided to check and opened the door. A blast of bullets drove him backward, and those inside the closet watched their friend fall to the floor. The gunman, stepping over his body, moved toward them.
In the darkness, Werber held his breath. He still had the 911 operator on the line. But his old flip phone had no light on it, and he and the others were drawn deep in the shadows.
They could see, framed in a sliver of light from the doorway, the stock of Bower’s rifle and his jacket, but little else. Could he see them? As the seconds ticked by, Werber waited for the gunman to spray the closet with bullets. “I’m barely breathing,” Werber would later recall. Then Bowers turned his back and walked away.
Outside, police cruisers and tactical vehicles flooded into the blocks around the intersection of Shady and Wilkins avenues. Nearby, Michael Aronson, a long-ago paramedic turned accounts manager, ordered his daughters, ages 6 and 8, into the basement, asking them to remember what they’d learned in school lockdown drills. He flipped through channels on his police scanner, as chatter ramped up in intensity.
“We’re under fire,” an officer radioed in at 9:59 a.m.
“Every unit in the city needs to get here now!” another officer said minutes later.
Judah Samet, a member of the Tree of Life congregation for 54 years, is almost always on time for services, but his housekeeper had delayed him. The 80-year-old, who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was just pulling into a handicapped spot when a man knocked on the window: “You can’t go into the synagogue. There’s a shooting.”
Samet saw what he later realized was a plainclothes officer, pistol drawn, exchanging fire with an assailant. For the second time in his life, Samet was face-to-face with evil.
Back inside, Werber and the others waited. The closet had a back door, Werber recalled, but in the darkness he could not see it. Perlman, the rabbi, managed to find his way out at some point. But the other two remained until police came to lead them out.
“I lost my yarmulke in the process,” Werber said. “I still had my prayer shawl.”
When police tactical teams entered the synagogue, a spent ammunition magazine lay in the hallway – and four bodies were sprawled across the atrium.
Bowers exchanged more gunfire, then retreated to the third floor. Four officers were wounded before authorities cornered the gunman.
At 11:08, Bowers, bleeding from wounds, crawled from his hiding place and raised his hands.
“All these Jews need to die,” he said to an officer.
In the end, 11 people did lose their lives at Tree of Life in an attack officials have labeled the worst single act of violence against Jews in America since the country’s founding. The victims included Dor Hadash congregant Jerry Rabinowitz, who reportedly went in to try to help the wounded, as well as three members of New Light: Richard Gottfried, a dentist looking ahead to retirement; Dan Stein, a new grandfather; and Wax, a retired accountant who was a “gem and gentleman,” Werber said.
Seven of the eight Tree of Life congregants who couldn’t make their way out of the sanctuary also were slain, and one was wounded but lived. The killed include brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, who are to be laid to rest Tuesday, and a couple, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, both in their 80s.
On Monday morning, Myers stood at a street corner outside of the synagogue, where memorials shaped like the Star of David had been placed along the sidewalk – one to honor each of those killed. He talked about the funerals to come and the difficult days and weeks ahead, but vowed: “Here in Pittsburgh, hate will not triumph. Love will win out.”
Then he pointed to the building named for the tree at the heart of the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden.
“I looked at this and I said, ‘Oh my God, this is a giant mausoleum,” he said. But then, he realized, he was wrong.
“Tree of Life has been in Pittsburgh for 154 years. We’re not leaving this corner,” he said. “We will be back and will rebuild, even stronger.”
— Also contributing were AP reporters Mark Scolforo, Mark Gillispie and Claudia Lauer.