11 dead in shooting at Squirrel Hill synagogue
A gunman tore through the rainy calm of Saturday morning Shabbat at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, leaving in his wake 11 dead, six injured, and a scene that veteran law enforcement officers called the worst they have ever seen.
The massacre in Squirrel Hill, the epicenter of the city’s Jewish community, has been termed one of the deadliest attacks against Jews in U.S. history.
Authorities identified the gunman as Robert D. Bowers. Within hours of the shootings, authorities had surrounded his home in Baldwin, about 10 miles south of the city. Bowers, 46, has a history of posting anti-Semitic writings on social media, authorities said. He had with him an assault rifle and three handguns, police said.
The FBI will lead the investigation into the killings, which are being treated as a hate crime. A federal judge on Saturday night signed a criminal complaint against Bowers charging him with 29 crimes, according to U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady.
Bowers is charged with the following offenses: 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting death, 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit homicide, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during a violent crime. A copy of the complaint was unavailable Saturday night. Authorities said it would be available at a planned Sunday morning news conference.
Police released no information about the dead.
Among the injured are four Pittsburgh police officers, all of whom have injuries that were not life-threatening, authorities said. The other injured remained in critical condition Saturday evening: a 70-year-old man with gunshot wounds to the torso and a 61-year-old woman with gunshots to her extremities.
“These incidents usually occur in other cities,” said Wendell Hissrich, Director of Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Department. “Today, the nightmare has hit home in the city of Pittsburgh.
Emergency dispatchers received the call at 9:54 a.m., reporting an active shooter inside the Wilkins Avenue synagogue, according to Hissrich. Officers were dispatched one minute later. In the meantime, residents living near the synagogue were warned to shelter in place while police searched for the shooter.
Two officers arrived on scene within minutes, at which point Bowers was exiting or in the process of exiting the synagogue, according to Bob Jones, Special Agent in-charge at the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office.
The two officers exchanged gunfire with Bowers, and both officers were wounded, Jones said. Bowers went back inside the synagogue to hide from SWAT officers arriving on scene.
Hissrich said the two other officers injured were SWAT officers, who engaged Bowers inside the building.
In an early afternoon briefing, an emotional Hissrich called the scene inside “horrific.”
“It’s one of the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve been on some plane crashes,” he said, voice cracking. “It’s very bad.”
Jones called the scene one of the worst he’s seen in his in his 22-year law enforcement career.
Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert said that without the speedy arrival of officers – and their willingness to charge into an active situation – the scale of the massacre would have been much larger.
“Watching those offices run into the danger to remove people – to get them to safety – was unbelievable,” he said.
Federal authorities said the investigation will be expansive.
“In the next several days we will look at everything in the suspect’s life – his home, his vehicle, his social media and his movements over the last several days,” Jones said.
He said it does not appear as though Bowers was previously known to law enforcement.
Bowers sustained multiple gunshot wounds, Hissrich said, which they believe came as a result of police gunfire. He was taken to Allegheny General Hospital in fair condition. Hissrich declined to say whether Bowers was cooperating with police.
“The actions of Robert Bowers represent the worst of humanity,” Gov. Tom Wolf said.
At the scene Saturday morning into the afternoon, friends, family and neighbors gathered in shock and in tears, some searching desperately for loved ones who had been in the synagogue.
A member of the Tree of Life congregation who was inside the building told the Tribune-Review 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,” said Stephen Weiss, a member of the Tree of Life congregation who was in the chapel during the shooting. “I recognized it as gunshots.”
Weiss, 60, said he left his seat and went to an area behind the chapel but two people went to the front lobby to check on the situation. Weiss said he was able to escape though the sanctuary.
He said he never saw the shooter.
Michael Eisenberg, immediate past president of the Tree of Life congregation, said he lives a block away from the synagogue. He said he’d thought about heading there early but didn’t.
“I tried getting up there…and the street was blocked off,” he said. “I just could not believe what I was witnessing.”
Three congregations hold services within the synagogue: Tree of Life, New Life and Dor Hadash, Weiss said. Shabbat begins about 9:45 a.m., according to former Rabbi Chuck Diamond. Each of the three sees about a dozen attendees. At the time of the shooting, he said, many were likely still milling around the outer area of the synagogue.
“Jews come late to service, so for a lot of people, that’s probably a good thing,” said Diamond, rabbi at Tree of Life until about a year ago.
He said the door — an entrance along Wilkins Avenue — is not locked during Shabbat services.
“I have to tell you, I always, in the back of my mind, thought something like this might happen,” Diamond said. “Just because of the way the world is.”
Diamond said congregations have undergone active shooter training.
“As a Jewish professional and with what’s going on in the world — even though we’ve been fairly safe here in Pittsburgh — it’s just in the back of your mind,” he said.
Hannah Sahud lives about a block and half from the synagogue. She and her children heard sirens all morning.
“Everyone knows someone who goes there,” Sahud said. “We’ve all been in that building.”
Sahud and her children left their house later in the morning and met up with friends at Murray and Aylesboro avenues.
Sahud and her children checked on the people that they know who go there all morning but hadn’t heard from many. She said her daughter and her friends had been texting each other all morning to make sure they are OK and to comfort them.
“It’s scary,” said her son, Lehv, 9.
Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life congregation was chartered in 1864, with a synagogue Downtown on Ross Street. The Conservative Jewish congregation later moved to Oakland. They relocated to the synagogue’s current address shortly after World War II.
Authorities plan to hold a press conference at 9 a.m. Sunday.
Natasha Lindstrom, Aaron Aupperlee and Luis Fábregas contributed to this report. Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer.