Pittsburgh’s darkest day: A minute-by-minute account of the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue

November 27, 2018

Gray clouds hang low, and morning rain shifts from mist to drizzle and back -- not out of the ordinary of fall Saturday in Pittsburgh. Some people prepare for an afternoon Pitt football game at Heinz Field. Many run errands or make their way to weekend appointments.

A father and daughter stroll into a sporting goods store at McCandless Crossing in the North Hills. Aisles at a nearby Trader Joe’s grow increasingly crowded as people get an early jump on grocery shopping. Parking in the Strip District is difficult to find by 9:30 a.m., though the South Side largely sleeps in following a Friday night of revelry.

In the East End, Squirrel Hill is waking up and starting to hum with activity. Coffee shops buzz. People walk, some with their dogs. Many in the city’s Jewish center head to Saturday Shabbat services -- or plan to make later ones.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers arrives at Tree of Life, a congregation he had led for just more than a year. Cecil and David Rosenthal welcomed him.

It wouldn’t be a typical Saturday at the Wilkins Avenue synagogue without “the Boys” -- as the brothers are affectionately called. The 54-year-old David Rosenthal meticulously arranges prayer books and shawls for services. Cecil Rosenthal, five years older and the more outgoing of the two, serves as greeter.

For decades, the brothers -- affected by cognitive challenges, but never slowed down -- have been fixtures in their neighborhood and synagogue, where they help before, during and after services.

“God broke the mold that produced Cecil and David,” Myers would later say.

The rabbi continues on, greeting other regulars -- such as Joyce Fienberg and Irv Younger -- before readying himself for his morning service.

On Saturdays, the concrete building with its distinctive, stained-glass windows hosts three services for three congregations simultaneously.

The Sabbath service for Tree of Life, a congregation with roots in Pittsburgh dating back 154 years, starts at 9:45 a.m. -- the same time New Light Congregation begins its own service downstairs.

A Torah Study service for Dor Hadash typically gets under way upstairs 15 minutes later.

On this Saturday -- Oct. 27, 2018 -- that service would never start.

Serenity shattered

Stephen Weiss was supposed to be out of town visiting a relative, but an illness scuttled the trip. At the last minute, he agrees to help with a service at Tree of Life, where he has been a member for 29 years. (1)

Barry Werber prefers New Light services on Friday evenings or Sundays. Saturday is the yahrzeit, or anniversary, of his mother’s death. He wears her wedding ring on the same finger as his own. (2)

As he walks into the synagogue, Werber, of Stanton Heights, passes a table topped with wine glasses and a bottle of whiskey, likely for a newborn boy’s bris. (3)

New Light Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is downstairs with Melvin Wax and Caroline Black. Her brother, Richard Gottfried, and fellow congregant Daniel Stein are in the kitchen preparing food. (3)

It’s 9:45 a.m. Wax, 88, begins the service. Werber followed in his prayer book.

Weiss sits in the last row of the Tree of Life chapel on the main floor.

Standing next to Rabbi Myers is E. Joseph Charny, a 90-year-old retired psychiatrist from Squirrel Hill, and a woman reading scripture for the service. (3)

Around this time, Deane Root and his wife, Rabbi Doris Dyen, leave home and drive -- a straight shot up Shady Avenue -- to Tree of Life. For a decade, the couple has spent Saturday mornings singing and discussing Jewish texts with fellow members of Dor Hadash, a small congregation that rents space in the synagogue.

For Root, the Sabbath serves as a day to “gather for reflection, prayer, spiritual uplift, and study of three millennia of texts and their relevance to our lives today.”

This Sabbath, however, would prove anything but uplifting.

Using the handle @onedingo, someone known for spewing anti-Jewish sentiments takes to social media at 9:49 a.m. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” the message reads. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Behind the post is Robert Bowers, a Baldwin Township trucker with no prior criminal record. He climbs out of his car and walks into Tree of Life, carrying a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock .357 handguns, authorities say.

It is about 9:50 a.m. -- the same time Root and Dyen pull into the parking lot.

They immediately hear a loud noise, like the booming of earth-moving construction equipment -- something not all that unusual for Squirrel Hill, even if not all that normal on a Saturday morning.

Root and his wife, both formally trained in music, note the tempo of the five or six separate but loud, somewhat muffled bursts. Still, they cannot tell the cause or direction from which it came.

Inside, Weiss and others in the Tree of Life service hear it, too -- a loud noise that rings out from the direction of the lobby. Two people run to check it out -- leaving 10 in the service, the minimum needed to continue.

Myers thinks an older member of one of the congregations had accidentally toppled a metal coat rack. From the back of the sanctuary, he watches three men from Dor Hadash run down the stairs. (4)

Werber hears the same noise and thinks someone bumped into the table with the glasses and whiskey. He pushes open the door to look. The Air Force veteran knows they are in trouble.

A body lays on the steps.

Root and Dyen walk toward the main entrance. Glass shards cover the sidewalk. Root notices holes in a piece of plate glass, thinking it must be the work of vandals.

“Wait a minute, those holes are too large for BBs,” he quickly realizes.

The couple again hears a staccato of the same loud, reverberating sounds.

“Run,” Root turns and shouts to his wife.

‘We have an active shooter’

Weiss now recognizes the sound as gunfire.

One burst becomes two, three, more than 10.

Though he has never heard a gun being fired, Myers, too, is certain what it is. (4)

He orders his congregation to get down. “Be quiet. Don’t say a word. Don’t move.” (5)

Myers grabs three people nearest him and hustles them toward an exit or to a closet to hide. The rabbi returns to try to get people hunkered behind old, thick oak pews in the back. But the gunfire grows louder as the gunman moves closer. Myers has to leave. (4)

Weiss dreads the ringing gunfire, but training kicks in from active shooter drills he went through a year earlier at the synagogue.

He and others go behind the chapel area. Some try to see whether the other congregations in the building are aware of what is happening. Weiss departs through the nearby sanctuary, never seeing the shooter.

Charny watches a man with a “big gun” enter the room and shoot four people. “Get out of here or die,” his mind screams. He and the woman reader escape to the third floor and hide. (3)

Myers runs to the back of the sanctuary but thinks better of trying to get out of the building. The exit route might place him in the shooter’s line of sight, he figures. (5)

He dials 911 as he frantically scurries up to the choir loft to find a place to hide. (4) (5)

“We have an active shooter in the building,” the rabbi, out of breath, quickly tells the person on the other end of the call.

Dispatch, 9:54 a.m.: ’5898 Wilkins Ave. The complainant says they have an active shooter in the building. A second call says they are being attacked. They have shotguns. Multiple gunshots are heard from the lobby, possibly 20 to 30 shots.′

At 9:55 a.m., Jason Lando, commander of Zone 5 police, says he’s in the area at Forbes Avenue and Wightman Street -- less than a mile from Tree of Life.

Officers Daniel Mead and Michael Midga, from Zone 4 police station located two blocks away, also are en route.

Myers listens as the gunman below executes his congregants.

“My husband’s been shot,” Bernice Simon cries out. (5)

The gunman fires again.

Bernice, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, die in the synagogue where they wed. The Wilkinsburg couple got married in a candlelight ceremony at Tree of Life in December 1956.

Myers slips into a nearby bathroom. The door has no lock, so he holds it shut and prays the gunman doesn’t find him. (5)

He provides whispered updates to 911 for nearly an hour.

Myers considers making a video recording for his wife. He isn’t certain he will make it out alive. (5)

Dispatch: ‘... Persons within the synagogue fled to different parts of the building and they are sheltering in place. ...’

Recognizing that a gunman is in the building, Rabbi Perlman hurries Werber, Mel Wax and Caroline Black to the back of the chapel and through the swinging doors of a storage room. The rabbi continues out through another exit to get help. (3)

Werber, Wax and Black remain behind in the darkness.

After a short time, there’s a pause in the shooting. Wax, who wears hearing aids but still can’t hear well, pushes the door open. The gunman fires three shots, striking Wax and knocking his body back onto the storage room floor. (3)

Black crouches on the floor next to the door. Werber presses his body to the wall. (7)

The gunman comes through the door. A shaft of light pierces the darkness. He steps over Wax’s body and looks around briefly. Werber notes the shooter’s jacket, shirt and pants. He also sees the rifle and fears he is next. This is the most frightening moment in his 76 years of life. (2)

Seeing neither of them in the darkened room, the gunman steps back over Wax and leaves.

“Thank God,” Werber says.

He checks for Wax’s pulse. There isn’t one, Werber tells 911 over his flip cellphone. He says that he saw the shooter but that he hadn’t seen them in the dark. A county emergency center call-taker keeps him on the line. She assures Werber that help is on the way.

‘Get back in your car’

Root and Dyen run to their car, where he then calls 911. His first attempt fails. His second gets through. It is 9:56 a.m.

Get out of there and don’t let anyone else go in, an emergency dispatcher tells him.

Other members of their congregation begin to arrive for their 10 a.m. service.

“Get back in your car and leave,” Root and Dyen shout out their window. “There’s an active shooter.”

Seymour “Sy” Drescher, a retired college professor, pulls into the lot and gets out.

“Sy, get back in your car,” Root yells.

Drescher jumps back into his car immediately.

Police screech to the scene. Mead and Midga are two of the first to arrive.

Root and his wife drive around to the Shady Avenue side of the synagogue, feeling a need to stay close and see what was happening. He sobs, knowing people inside.

That includes Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a longtime family physician; and Daniel Leger, a nurse and UPMC chaplain; and another member - three men who always arrived first to set up and then help with Dor Hadash services.

The couple watches as custodian Augie Siriano comes out of the synagogue through an emergency exit on Shady Avenue. He is in shock, cold and scared standing in the rain without a coat. But he is unharmed.

“If you’ve got a vehicle, get out of here,” another officer orders Root and others in the area.

Police: ‘No one goes near Wilkins Avenue because you can get shot.’

Wearing a ballistics vest and armed with his handgun, Mead, 55, races to the front of Tree of Life - where he encounters the gunman as he attempts to leave the synagogue.

An officer radios at 9:58 a.m.: “We’re under fire, we’re under fire. He’s got an automatic weapon. He’s firing at us from the synagogue.”

A brief gun battle ensues. Mead is shot in the left hand.

Either shrapnel from broken glass or a bullet grazes Smidga, 39, who grew up near Ligonier. A medic at the scene treats the injury to his right ear.

At 9:59 a.m., Lando comes back on the radio. “Every available unit in the city needs to get here now. All units, hold a perimeter, we’re taking on AK-47 fire from out the front of the synagogue.”

The injured officers hide behind their vehicle near the intersection of Shady and Wilkins avenues. Someone calls for both city and county SWAT teams.

At 10 a.m., Lando calls out: “We are pinned down by gunfire. He is firing out the front of the building with an automatic weapon.”

Police set up an incident command area on Murray Avenue, between Solway Street and Wilkins. Officers surround the building. SWAT team operators arrive from all directions.

One parks his SUV near Wilkins and Negley Avenue. He pulls out green tactical gear and dresses himself on the sidewalk, then runs toward the synagogue clutching a semi-automatic rifle.

Several Pittsburgh police cruisers and officers in patrol uniforms are scattered along Wilkins Avenue toward Tree of Life. No residents can be seen outside. The street is quiet, other than ambulance and police sirens.

SWAT prepares to enter the building. A couple of 10-man teams report they are ready.

“We have received one officer returned fire, three shots. May have struck the actor, copy,” a dispatcher announces around 10:20 a.m.

A few minutes later, a report is broadcast that the gunman is wearing “a green vest or a green jacket, that he had a weapon slung around his neck. That’s all we know,” an officer says.

At 10:29 a.m., SWAT teams are at the front door, ready to go in.

Officers immediately request help in evacuating people inside.

“We have a spent magazine, looks like a high-powered AK, middle hallway,” a SWAT operator radios.

An elderly couple is found alive, hiding in a small anteroom near the front. SWAT moves them out of the building.

At 10:36 a.m., a SWAT operator reports finding four bodies in the atrium. A woman with a gunshot wound is found leaning over one of the bodies. (6)

“I got one alive,” an officer radios.

Andrea Wedner, 61, is the only woman known to survive a gunshot injury in the attack. Her mother, Rose Mallinger, 97, died.

A survivor provides police with more description of the shooter: “It’s a heavy-set white male in a coat. He is unshaven,” an officer reports.

At 10:40 a.m., officers discover more victims.

“I have an additional four victims, four victims, second-floor atrium off the front hall,” a SWAT operator radios. “Total eight down. One rescued at this time.”

SWAT operators clear the first floor but still haven’t found the shooter. The search moves to the basement, where Werber and Black remain in the dark storage closet.

The door pushes open and light again spills in. A SWAT member is there to lead them to safety. (5)

It is 10:43 a.m. Werber had been on the phone with 911 for 44 minutes.

“We have rifle cases in here with blood,” a SWAT member radios from the basement.

Still with no sign of the shooter, the search moves to the third floor.

SWAT eventually finds Myers and gets him out of the building. A white and blue prayer shawl, still around his neck, waves behind him as he runs across the street. (4)

‘Shots fired, shots fired’

At 10:54 a.m., the carnage continues.

“Contact, contact, shots fired, shots fired,” someone yells into their radio. Loud bangs are heard in the background. Someone screams.

SWAT members finally encounter the shooter, who is barricaded on the third floor. He opens fire.

SWAT operator Timothy Matson had taken seven rounds during the gunfight.

A fellow operator pulls him out of the room, and another removes his body armor and helmet before they both carry him downstairs. Within 20 seconds of being shot, an emergency medicine doctor works to save his life. (6)

“Shots fired, give me additional resources -- additional resources to the third floor.”

Another voice comes on the radio: “We have a guy barricaded, actively shooting at SWAT operators. There’s an operator shot. I’ve got one operator shot at this time.”

SWAT operator Anthony Burke was shot in the arm.

And then, quiet.

Five seconds, 10 seconds. 30 seconds, a minute. There’s static -- someone is engaging their radio but not talking.

Finally, someone speaks.

“We have eyes on the door. We have an operator hit, high in the arm, we have a tourniquet. That’s all I got right now. Shots were still going off when I came out of the room, believe he’s still alive.”

At 11 a.m., it starts again.

“Multiple shots fired, multiple shots fired.”

More long and tense silence, then: “I need an IV bag.”

Within minutes, SWAT operators began communicating with the shooter.

“He’s been given orders to crawl out, crawl out, he’s not done so yet,” someone radios.

Robert Bowers gives his name and date of birth. His surrender is in progress.

At 11:08 a.m., Bowers gives up his guns and crawls on the floor to police. He is injured and bleeding.

“The suspect is talking about, ‘All these Jews need to die,’” a SWAT operator radios.

It is 11:13 a.m. Bowers is in custody.

Mayor Bill Peduto soon would call those 83 minutes of terror at Tree of Life, the 11 souls lost, six injured and a city forever changed the “darkest day” in Pittsburgh history.

Material from Tribune-Review reporting appears without citation. Other articles and video interviews cited: (1) NBC News; (2) CBS Evening News; (3) The New York Times; (4) CNN; (5) Today Show; (6) ABC World News Tonight; (7) Associated Press

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