As Barry Werber walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue, he passed a cart carrying glassware and whiskey meant for the baby-naming ceremony scheduled at Dor Hadash, one of three small congregations that worship there.
He went downstairs, where his New Light Congregation meets, and found only a few people gathered. Melvin Wax, 88, was chatting up front with David Rosenthal, who had intellectual disabilities and spent hours helping out there. Rosenthal soon went upstairs for his own service at Tree of Life.
Two other men, Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried, were checking on food supplies in the kitchen for the breakfast New Light planned to host.
Minutes later, Werber found himself hiding in a dark storage closet after an anti-Semitic gunman tore through the building and opened fire, killing Wax, Rosenthal, Stein, Gottfried and seven others across two floors.
“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,” Werber, 76, said Sunday. “Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear. It breaks my heart.”
Werber’s recollection was among the harrowing accounts that emerged from survivors as authorities worked to piece together the background and movements of the suspected gunman, Robert Gregory Bowers, who is due in court Monday.
Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, according to state and federal affidavits made public on Sunday.
He apparently posted an anti-Semitic message on a social media account linked to him just a few minutes before he opened fire. He expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die,” authorities said. The Anti-Defamation League called it the deadliest U.S. attack on Jews.
Six people were injured, including four officers.
It isn’t clear whether Bowers, who underwent surgery and remains hospitalized, has an attorney to speak on his behalf. A message left with the federal public defender’s office in Pittsburgh wasn’t returned.
All three congregations were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. Saturday in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of the city’s Jewish community .