IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Squirrel Hill residents shaken but not surprised

"What are we going to do when we go to synagogue next? That fear ripples through your mind," said one resident.
Get more newsLiveon

PITTSBURGH — The streets of Squirrel Hill, slick with rain and fallen leaves, felt eerily quiet on Sunday morning as Elias Aizenman, 59, walked his dog, Leo.

One day earlier, just blocks from Aizenman's home here, a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue and killed three women and eight men before being taken into custody by police.

Tree of Life is where Aizenman's daughter had her bat mitzvah ceremony, and it's at the heart of this historically Jewish community, which is home to University of Pittsburgh faculty members and a judge. Still, he said he wasn't shocked to learn that a shooting had happened.

"It didn't take me by surprise," Aizenman said. "I sort of was expecting something like this. I just wasn't expecting it here just because of the nature of the community."

As Aizenman walked Leo past signs that read in English, Arabic and Spanish, "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor," the Allegheny County medical examiner publicly read aloud the names of the congregation members who were killed Saturday.

Two brothers and a married couple were among those fatally shot after authorities say Robert Bowers went on a rampage during a weekly service on Saturday.

The 11 victims were 54 to 97 years old, authorities said at a news conference.

Dr. Karl Williams, the chief medical examiner, said autopsies had begun, but he wouldn't give a time frame on how long they would take to complete.

Federal charges released Saturday night said Bowers, who was being treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital, took four firearms into the synagogue: three Glock handguns and semi-automatic rifle. Authorities said he used all four weapons.

At Waffalonia, a waffle restaurant in Squirrel Hill, Cody Murphy, 17, who helped organize a vigil on Saturday, was thinking of Jewish holidays to come.

"On Hanukkah, we're all going to be thinking about it and, on Passover, we're all going to be thinking about it," she said. "It's never going to go away, and a lot of kids in this community are going to be scared to go to services."

Adults in the community, where Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" once lived, also echoed the fear of returning to synagogues in the community.

"What are we going to do when we go to synagogue next? That fear ripples through your mind," said Dennis Jett, 73, a former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique who has lived in this neighborhood for six years.

Jett likened the feeling in the community to the atmosphere after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I know what that feels like, and the idea that that feeling could be here in this neighborhood is unthinkable," he said.

On most Sundays in Squirrel Hill, people watch football and root for the Steelers, Aizenman said. But this Sunday was different. "I guess people are staying home," he said.

Officials said that Bowers is believed to have acted alone and that there was no additional threat.

"He will be held fully accountable," U.S. Attorney Scott Brady said at the news conference.

Authorities said Sunday that they were treating the attack as a hate crime and that Bowers had mentioned his hatred for Jews.

FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said it remained unclear why the gunman chose the Tree of Life synagogue and whether he had scoped out the premises before launching his attack.

Jones said Bowers appeared to be trying to leave when officers arrived on Saturday. He added that if Bowers had made it out of the synagogue, there was a strong possibility there would have been more violence.

Jones said he expected the crime scene investigation to take as long as a week to process.

Jeff Finkelstein, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said three congregations hold services at the synagogue, but he couldn't say how many were meeting on Saturday.

Authorities said victims were found in different locations within the synagogue.

Phil McCausland reported from Pittsburgh. Kalhan Rosenblatt reported from New York. Saphora Smith reported from London.