Eleven people were killed and six people — including four police officers — were injured in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill community Saturday morning after a suspect entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and opened fired on a Shabbat service.
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The victims of the shooting ranged from 54 to 97 years old and included brothers as well as a husband and wife. Among those injured were four officers, three of whom were shot by the gunman. The other two individuals injured in the shooting include a 61-year-old woman and a 70-year-old man.
The elderly woman injured in the shooting is currently stable, officers confirmed. On Saturday evening, the elderly man was in critical condition and undergoing a second operation. His current condition is unclear.
Robert Bowers, 46, was identified Saturday as the suspect detained in the case. Upon his surrender after engaging in a shootout with police, he “made statements regarding genocide and his desire to kill Jewish people,” said U.S. attorney Scott Brady said.
Bowers entered the synagogue Saturday morning with four weapons: three Glock 357 handguns and an AR-15 assault rifle, the FBI said. He was injured during the incident and transported to hospital; Bowers is now undergoing medical care.
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On Saturday evening, 29 federal charges were laid against Bowers — 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder, 11 counts of murdering victims practicing religious belief and seven counts pertaining to the police officers injured in the shooting.
Brady said federal prosecutors are seeking approval to pursue the death penalty against Bowers.
Law enforcement officers were dispatched to the scene at 9:55 a.m. EST. According to the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, Bob Jones, the tragedy could have been far worse had law enforcement not stepped in when they did.
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“Had Bowers made it out of that facility, there’s a strong possibility that additional violence (could have) occurred,” he noted in a press conference Sunday morning.
Jones added that the crime scene at the synagogue Saturday morning was among the worst he’s seen in his two-decade career.
“This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years,” he said. Bowers’ motive remains unknown, though officials believe he acted alone.
A group were able to hide from the gunman in a supply closet, even as he looked into their darkened hiding spot.
“I can’t say anything, and I’m barely breathing,” recalled Barry Werber, 76, in an interview with The Associated Press. “He didn’t see us, thank God.”
The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, said in a statement it believes the attack to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The organization has reported in the past a nearly 60 per cent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 — the largest single-year increase since it began tracking nearly three decades ago.
The crime is being treated as a hate crime by the FBI. Bowers indicated strong anti-Semitic leanings on social media platforms, including Gab.com, a right-wing Twitter-alternative.
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In one post on Gab.com, Bowers said that a Jewish refugee organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Bowers also re-posted and shared several anti-Semitic posts on the platform.
In a statement, Gab.com confirmed the profile belonged to Bowers.
“Gab took swift and proactive action to contact law enforcement immediately,” it said. “We first backed up all user data from the account and then proceeded to suspend the account. We then contacted the FBI and made them aware of this account and the user data in our possession.”
Following the shooting, Gab.com was temporarily taken offline after being denied hosting services by its providers but came back online early Sunday morning.
Leaders from around the world took to social media to offer their condolences and thoughts following the shooting, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“This evil Anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity. It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of Anti-Semitism from our world. We must unite to conquer hate,” Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon.
“Canadians’ hearts are with the Jewish community in Pittsburgh today, as they endured a horrific anti-Semitic attack while at prayer. May the families of those murdered be comforted, and may the injured recover quickly and fully,” the prime minister’s post read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned the shooting, which he described as “horrendous anti-Semitic brutality.”
Squirrel Hill is one of Pittsburgh’s largest Jewish communities, and according to Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh CEO Jeff Finkelstein, houses approximately half of the city’s Jewish population. It was also once the home of TV personality Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers from the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Public figures and residents who used to live in Squirrel Hill expressed their shock on social media, including Pittsburgh Steelers NFL player Cam Heyward.
The Empire State Building in New York City went dark Sunday evening to mark the tragedy.
At least 2,000 mourners packed the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, PA Sunday evening to honour the victims of the shooting, while thousands more stood outside the hall, listening to the remarks on loud speakers.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was in the synagogue when the shooting took place, spoke at the event. He said he began the services at 9:45 and the shooting began a few minutes later.
He said there were 12 in the sanctuary at the time, most sitting at the back.
“I helped pull out the people that I could from the front,” he said. “But, alas, I had eight people in the back. One fortunately survived.
“Seven of my congregates were shot dead in my sanctuary. My holy place has been defiled.”
A makeshift vigil was held Saturday evenings for the victims of the shooting. Thousands of people attended the memorial, and under candle light and pouring rain, chanted Jewish hymns and lit candles for the fallen.
The vigil was organized by a member of the Squirrel Hill community, 17-year-old Cody Murphy, who lives just up the street from the synagogue and says he could hear the gunshots from his house.
“You could hear the gunshots from my house,” Murphy said. Murphy took the initiative to start the vigil because “no one wants to be alone right now.”
Fresh off the aftermath of this violent hate crime, Jewish communities around the world are also reacting to the shooting by increasing security in their own districts.
For instance, in response to the attack, Toronto police confirmed that it will be increasing its presence at synagogues, while Jewish advocacy groups said law enforcement will be increasing its presence in Jewish communities across the country.
A spokesperson for York Regional Police said that it will be “increasing visibility at synagogues in the region.”
“Officers will be attending and will be inside as well,” the official said. “Officers are attending with the goal of trying to give everyone a sense of calm. They’re asking anyone who sees anything suspicious to contact them.”
Martin Sampson, a spokesperson for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), confirmed in a statement that “law enforcement across Canada, as a precaution, directed front-line resources to increase presence around Jewish neighbourhoods and Jewish institutions.”
“Canadian law enforcement has reacted quickly and decisively to this situation, and for that we are grateful,” Sampson said. “Though there is no information to suggest an increased security threat in Canada, we have reminded our community right across the country that it is important to remain vigilant.”
An FBI investigation is currently underway, though officials warn that the crime scene may take up to a week to process.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert urged the community to come together in the aftermath of the attack.
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“We’re going to get through this,” he assured citizens during a press conference Sunday morning. “We’re going to continue on and show what Pittsburgh’s made of.”
The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, echoed these sentiments.
“We know that we, as a society, are better than this. We know that hatred will never win out.”
Bowers will appear before a federal judge at 1:30 p.m. on Monday. Twenty-two of the charges against him are eligible for the death penalty.
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