Survivors from Saturday’s synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh have told how they hid in storage closets and bathrooms while the gunman opened fire, praying to God that they would not be found.
There were three congregations in the Tree of Life congregation building on Saturday when gunman Robert Bowers opened fire.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was leading the main congregation on the ground floor which is where most of the victims died. At 9.45am, they had just started their Sabbath service when the gunshots began.
He gave a harrowing description of the events on Good Morning America on Monday morning and told how he was only able to save a few members of the congregation.
‘We started 9.45 and the regulars are there, these good decent people.
‘Within a few minutes I heard what I thought was the crashing metal of one of the coat racks and I thought one of our seniors maybe lost his or her balance and pulled on it to right themselves and fell, god forbid, or something.
‘At that moment, three members of Dor Hadash, one of the congregations we house in our building, I saw them run downstairs.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers fought back tears on Monday morning as he gave a harrowing description of the shooting
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was leading prayers in the main sanctuary when the gunman burst in. He got the people in the front to safety but could not save the eight victims in the back. He told on Monday how he was forced to flee as he heard the gunman approach and ran to a bathroom upstairs to hide. The door was locked so he held it closed ‘with all his might’ and prayed that Bowers would not find him until SWAT teams rescued him and told him to run across the road. That is when this picture was taken (above) on Saturday of Myers, with his prayer shawl still wrapped around him
‘That’s when the next hail of bullets rang out within another 10 or 15 seconds. Though I’ve never personally witnessed or heard gunfire until this moment, something inside told me, this is gunfire.
‘I quickly told my congregants to just drop to the floor, be quiet, don’t say a word. I thought, the pews are thick old wood… perhaps there’s some protection there.’
‘I tried to see if i could get the remaining people who were in the back of the congregation but I could tell the gunfire was getting louder. I couldn’t save those eight people
Myers was able to get the people closest to him out through doors at the front of the sanctuary but he could not save those who were further to the back.
Choking back tears, he described having to leave them and run for his own life.
‘I tried to see if i could get the remaining people who were in the back of the congregation but I could tell the gunfire was getting louder.
‘I couldn’t save those eight people,’ he said.
He fled upstairs, into the choir loft, and listened as Bowers murdered those who had no time to escape.
‘I heard him execute my congregants. I couldn’t watch,’ he said.
He had his cell phone on him, something he had been told to do by a security expert, and was the first person to call 911.
He stayed on the phone as he ran to safety upstairs and hid in a bathroom. To his horror when he got inside, the door was locked.
Daniel Stein (pictured), 71, who had recently become a grandfather, was killed as was 66-year-old Dr Jerry Rabinowitz (right)
Joyce Fienberg (pictured left), 75, and dentist Richard Gottfried, 65, (right) was killed
Irving Younger, 69, was also killed. Rose Mallinger, 87, was the oldest victim. Not pictured are Sylvan and Bernice Young, an elderly couple who married in the synagogue in 1956 and died together there on Saturday. Their family has asked for privacy and they have not been pictured
‘With all my might, I just held on to the door and prayed to God, “Don’t find me.” After what seemed like an eternity, SWAT came and rescued me but at that point they had not caught him, he was still at large in the facility.
‘It can’t be used again in its present condition, the bullet holes are too numerous to count
‘They had me run across the street so that’s probably that photo, the 15-minutes-of-fame photo, of me running across the street with my prayer shawl on,’ he said.
‘At first I think it’s a mixture of anger, disbelief, all rolled into one, am I really experiencing this? Is this some horrific nightmare and I am going to wake up? Is this some cruel drill that the FBI had us do just to practice?
‘All of these things go through simultaneously… then I saw that there is hate and it isn’t going away it just seems to be getting worse.
He said the synagogue would not be fit for use for some time and that there were too many bullet holes to count.
‘I’m standing in a cemetery and this is a massive mausoleum. This is my home and it’s being desecrated.
This is a view inside the main sanctuary where Myers was conducting services on Saturday. He was at the front and was able to help those closest to him escape but the elderly people towards the back did not have enough time to escape before the gunman entered the room
‘It can’t be used again in its present condition, the bullet holes are too numerous to count,’ he said.
Barry Werber, one of the men who hid in the closet and survived, said: ‘I don’t know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he’s not the first and he won’t be the last.
‘Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear. It breaks my heart.’
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman was leading the New Light congregation in the basement when he heard gunman Robert Bowers open fire on the Tree of Life congregation upstairs.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, pictured on Sunday, a day after the shooting, saved several members of his New Light congregation by pushing them into a storage closet and turning the lights out when he heard the gunman open fire. They were downstairs in the building. Three men were shot down there and eight others were killed upstairs. The rabbi wept on Sunday as he led a service in their memory
They had just started to pray when they heard crashing coming from upstairs, looked out the door and saw a body on the staircase.
Melvin Wax, 88, was shot and killed when he left the closet and went back into the room where he had been praying. He was shot three times and fell back into the closet, where four others were still hiding, but the gunman did not see them
Perlman pushed his four congregants into a supply closet and turned the lights off immediately.
They hid together and called 911 but did not make a sound for fear that the gunman would hear their voices and open fire when he came downstairs.
When Bowers did venture downstairs, he paused.
Fatally, 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who was inside the closet, mistook the silence for safety and opened the closet door.
He walked back into the room where they had been and was immediately shot by Bowers, falling back into the closet as a result of the force.
‘There were three shots, and he falls back into the room where we were. The gunman walks in,’ Rabbi Perlman recounted tearfully.
Miraculously, Bowers did not realize there were others hiding in the closet when he fell back and, instead of firing into the crowded worshipers still hiding in it, he left the basement.
Brothers Cecil, 59, (right) and David (left) Rosenthal 54, were both disabled and volunteered at the synagogue. They were murdered as they prepared food in the kitchen for the New Light congregation downstairs in the basement
Eleven Stars of David, each bearing one of the victim’s names, were left outside the synagogue on Sunday
Rabbi Perlman and the others then stayed in the closet with Wax, who died of his injuries, until it was safe to leave.
Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried had been checking on food supplies in the kitchen for the breakfast New Light planned to host.
They were both shot dead as were brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal who were both killed in the Tree of Life congregation. They both had disabilities and volunteered at the synagogue regularly.
Brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were intellectually disabled and lived together near the synagogue.
‘Cecil’s laugh was infectious. David was so kind and had such a gentle spirit. Together, they looked out for one another.
‘They were inseparable,’ said Chris Schopf, vice president of residential supports for ACHIEVA, which helped the brothers live independently
‘Most of all, they were kind, good people with a strong faith and respect for everyone around.’
Mourners gather at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall to honor the victims on Sunday
Rabbi Perlman (back) hugs fellow rabbis Cheryl Klein and Jeffrey Myers who all survived
Bowers shot his victims with an AR-15, used in many of the nation’s mass shootings, and three handguns, all of which he owned legally and had a license to carry, according to a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation, and who spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity.
Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said Sunday.
Robert Bowers, 46, was charged with 29 counts – including 22 which carry the death penalty. He is due in court on Monday afternoon
Little else was known about the suspect, who had no apparent criminal record. It appears he acted alone, authorities said.
Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.
He was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death – a federal hate crime – and using a firearm to commit murder.
Federal prosecutors intend to pursue the death penalty, Brady said.
Of the six survivors, four remained in the hospital Sunday night, and two – including a 40-year-old officer – were in critical condition.