PITTSBURGH — Keith Murray knew there was a gunman in the building, but he didn’t know where. Police still had not located the attacker when Murray, a physician who wears full body armor so he can go into active-shooter situations with the Pittsburgh SWAT team, entered a lower door of Tree of Life synagogue.
That a high-powered weapon was being used became obvious immediately. The team of officers he was with found two terrified congregants hiding in an anteroom off the sanctuary and rushed them outside. They discovered an elderly woman who had been shot in the arm and was in shock. With officers fanning off to search the upper floors, Murray stabilized her wound quickly, and she was led away.
The first four dead they saw were in the pews, shot where they had been sitting at the start of a service.
As Murray’s team advanced, they found empty magazines from the gunman’s rifle, dropped on the floor as the shooter apparently reloaded. Spent bullet casings formed a trail, and the officers began working slowly toward the stairs, and then up.
Murray was on a second-floor landing when the tense quiet of the search was broken by a small explosion. The SWAT team had breached a door on a floor above where the gunman had barricaded himself. Rapid gunshots followed.
They had found him.
The deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history would come to a head in a gun battle in a sacred space. By the end of it, 11 people would be killed, most of them elderly members of the three congregations that worship at the synagogue. All of them in a place consecrated as a haven from evil, sprung suddenly as evil’s trap. Authorities charged Robert Bowers, 46, in the massacre.
“It’s a terrible thing to feel,” said Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the congregation. “When you come into our sanctuary, you want it to be a place that you feel safe in.”
It all began with utter normality. Not many worshipers were in their seats at the start of the 9:45 a.m. services Saturday. Tree of Life is a busy place on a Sabbath morning — at least three groups were settling in for activities in different parts of the building — but not a rushed one.
People drift in through the morning, Diamond said. The timely ones tend to be the very old, many of whom have made the service a weekly ritual for decades, exchanging the same greetings with the same congregants, a bit of reassuring ritual in the most comfortable of sanctuaries.
E. Joseph Charny, 90, a retired psychiatrist, had just eased into a seat in the second-floor chapel, as he’s been doing since 1955. Just six or eight others were already in the towering space of soaring stained glass windows with seats divided by a central aisle. Other worshipers were still hanging their coats. Some were coming up from the pre-service breakfast of bagels and juice served downstairs each Saturday.
Normally, a group of children would have been moving toward their weekly Shabbat class, but one of the children had a conflict on this Saturday, Diamond said, so the session was postponed to Sunday. According to the synagogue’s online calendar, it was the only Saturday in the past month without the youth gathering.
All over the neighborhood, congregants were making fateful decisions without knowing it. Arnold Freedman, a 91-year-old psychologist, chose to stay home Saturday after noticing a commotion outside in the street about the time services would begin. Nancy Merenstein, 80, normally goes every week and normally goes early. On Saturday, her husband was ailing, and she decided to skip services.
But Cecil Rosenthal, a friendly 59-year-old with developmental disabilities, was at his self-
assigned station as a greeter at the door. He had been a member since he was a child and seldom missed a service. He was the first person anyone coming through the door would see.
Rosenthal was killed, as was his 54-year-old brother, David.
Services had just begun when Charny heard something like tumbling furniture from a lower floor. “It sounded like some big thing falling over, like a coat rack,” Charny said.
It wasn’t unusual to hear activity in the building. Two other congregations make use of the building on Saturday mornings: New Light, a conservative congregation, meets in the basement, and Dor Hadash, a smaller group, was holding services in an office across the hall from the second-floor chapel.
FBI officials would later allege that the gunman entered through an unlocked lower door with three pistols and an AR-15 semiautomatic assault-style rifle. When the gunman burst into one of the occupied rooms, he was shouting anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire, authorities said.
What Charny had heard was the mayhem of that opening attack. And then, Charny said, a man appeared in the doorway of the chapel where he sat. The man was silent, he said, but he began shooting.
“I looked up, and there were all these dead bodies,” Charny said. “I wasn’t in the mood to stay there.”
He fled as the gunfire continued. Charny is elderly, but he had been attending services in the ancient and much-modified building for more than 60 years. He knew where to go: Up.
“The third floor is full of nooks and crannies,” said Diamond, who was a rabbi at the synagogue for seven years until leaving in 2017.
Charny and two others — a rabbi and his assistant — made their way into the warren of spaces where Charny ducked into a storage room stuffed with cardboard boxes. There, he waited in silence.
“We all knew leaving too soon would have been our deaths,” Charny said.
Police said the gunman, too, would head to the top floor.
The first calls to 911 were logged at 9:54 a.m. The first officers arrived within minutes and encountered the gunman at the building’s entrance, apparently as he was trying to flee.
“He had finished, and he was exiting the building,” Robert Jones, the FBI special agent in charge of the case, told reporters. Had the shooter “made it out of that facility, there is a strong possibility that additional violence would have occurred.”
At the door, the gunman opened fire, wounding one officer in the hand. The other was struck by shrapnel. The shooter turned back inside and headed upstairs.
Murray, the doctor, was with one of the SWAT units that followed. Other officers had broken down the door of the room where the shooter was barricaded. In the rapid exchange of fire, an officer on the third floor was struck multiple times.
That officer, who has not been identified, suffered gunshot wounds to his arms and legs and a glancing head wound, Murray said. A second officer stepped over his fallen comrade, shielding his body as he fired his own weapon at the gunman.
As the battle raged, other SWAT team members maneuvered the wounded officer down the stairs, where Murray and others began applying tourniquets and administering IV fluids. They lifted the wounded officer onto a litter and carried him down the stairs to safety.
“Through training, you learn to compartmentalize your emotions on one side and your actions on the other,” said Murray, who spoke of the events in quiet, clipped sentences Sunday outside the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Mercy Hospital facility.
Police finally subdued the gunman after he was wounded multiple times.
Bowers was taken into custody and transported to a hospital. He is alleged to have told a SWAT operator “that he wanted all Jews to die and also that they were committing genocide to his people.”
Charny doesn’t know exactly how long he hid in the storage space. The isolation added to the terror. But eventually, he crept out in time to see what Jones, the FBI agent, would declare “the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
For Charny, being one of the lucky is hard to process. “At first I felt numb, then thankful,” he said.
His synagogue, his city, his nation, all are similarly struggling to make sense of the violent hatred that descended on a fine autumn Saturday.
“The emotions haven’t registered yet,” Murray said Sunday. “Yesterday, I’m covered in my teammate’s blood. Today, I’m carving pumpkins with my children.”
Hendrix reported from Washington. Moriah Balingit, Deanna Paul, Kristine Phillips and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.