911 workers recount harrowing phone calls during Squirrel Hill synagogue rampage

November 24, 2018

Bruce Carlton’s phone at the Allegheny County emergency dispatch center in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood rang at 9:54 a.m. Saturday.

A man identifying himself as Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue was on the other end of the line.

“We have an active shooter in the building,” Myers reported.

Carlton, a call-taker at the dispatch center, said Myers was out of breath and talking fast, yet the rabbi managed to give a detailed account of the situation. Carlton made him repeat the details so he could enter the information into the county’s dispatch system.

“I had myself convinced that I had delayed entirely too long getting the call in (to dispatchers). I was thinking several minutes,” said Carlton, 48, a former police officer. “I’m actually surprised it was 20 seconds flat.”

Calls from people inside and outside the synagogue soon began flooding the 911 center in what several veteran dispatchers who spoke with reporters Tuesday described as the worst situation they’ve ever faced.

Telecommunications officers, including call-takers and dispatchers and their shift commanders, methodically took the information and radioed it to police and paramedics at the scene and en route. At the same time, they handled unrelated calls from other parts of the county.

Across the room from Carlton that Saturday morning, dispatcher Michael Steinmiller, 30, heard somebody yell “active shooter.”

Steinmiller’s computer screen said “Channel 3” for Pittsburgh police. It was his call.

“I sent a few units” from the Zone 4 police station in Squirrel Hill, Steinmiller said.

Minutes later, he heard what he described as his worst nightmare: “Officer shot, officer down.”

Michelle Kalinsky, who was in her fifth week of training as a telecommunications officer, took a call from a man in the basement of the synagogue. He was hiding in a closet with a woman and a man who had been wounded. The caller said he couldn’t feel the other man’s pulse.

Kalinsky, 51, said the man in the closet had seen the shooter, but the closet was dark and the gunman didn’t see him hiding there.

“I was letting him know the shooter was still in the building and he was still shooting. We assured him that help was on the way, that SWAT would be there soon. He helped us help (police),” Kalinsky said.

“I stayed on the phone with him until SWAT got there,” she said. “The call lasted 44 minutes.”

Carlton stayed on the line with Myers for 56 minutes as the rabbi hid in a bathroom. They spoke in whispers, with Carlton providing updates when state police and a helicopter were on the way and police made it onto the roof. Myers relayed what he was hearing.

“Occasionally, I’d ask him, ‘Are you still with me? Give me a sign,’ ” Carlton said. “From where he was at, it was surprisingly quiet. I don’t really recall hearing any shots myself, but every time he said, ‘another volley of five shots, another volley of 10 shots,’ I was putting that in the call so the police knew that it was still coming.”

Carlton added: “That initial dispatch (of) 20 to 30 shots coming from the lobby, those were his words. Comments that I was dictating ... and that went out over the air.”

Garett Wagner, a shift commander working that day, credited the call-takers and dispatchers for working together to handle the chaotic situation at Tree of Life and other calls from across the county.

“We don’t just shut down because of one incident,” Wagner said.

After Steinmiller’s shift ended, he went home and made soup. Carlton went to the scene and the Zone 4 police station to tell officers they did a terrific job.

Kalinsky said she felt a sense of satisfaction.

“You go through training and you think, ‘Oh, am I going to be able to do this job?’ ” she said. “When it came down to it, I was able to put aside those feelings and do what I needed to do. Now I know I’m where I need to be.”

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