It was just after 9:45am on Saturday morning in Pittsburgh as rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, was just a few minutes into morning prayers when his congregants heard a loud bang.
76-year-old Barry Werber, an Air Force vet who was there to help mark the anniversary of his mother’s death, thought at first that someone might have walked into a cart upstairs stacked with glassware and whiskey meant for a baby-naming ceremony.
To others, it sounded like somebody in the hallway had knocked over a coat rack.
But then the sounds came again, this time in a burst.
76-year-old Barry Werber hid in a basement hallway along with several others
Friend Melvin Wax, 88, was alongside him but thought the shooting had stopped
Werber was on the phone to 911 but his old flip phone doesn’t light up He believes the fact the shooter couldn’t see him probably saved his life
Werber and other worshippers opened a door leading into the basement hallway.
A body lay on the staircase. Their rabbi quickly closed the door and pushed Werber and fellow congregants Melvin Wax and Carol Black into a large supply closet.
As gunshots echoed upstairs, Werber dialed 911 but was too afraid to say anything, for fear of making any noise.
The first call to an emergency dispatcher came in at 9:54: Active shooter at Tree of Life. Twenty shots fired in the lobby, maybe 30.
In the pitch black of the basement closet, all turned silent. Could it be over? Werber and the others hidden there waited, before the elderly Wax decided to check and opened the door.
A blast of bullets drove him backward, and those inside the closet watched their friend fall to the floor. The gunman, stepping over his body and moved toward them.
‘Mel is in front of me, and I assume that Mel thought maybe it was over with,’ Werber said to
Werber says he is not sure if he will step back inside the synagogue without trepidation
Werber was in the Air Force from ’60 to ’64 has never been so scared as during the shooting
A person stands in front of Stars of David that are displayed in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue with the names of those killed in Saturday’s deadly shooting in Pittsburgh
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation stands across the street from the synagogue in Pittsburgh
In the darkness, Werber held his breath. He still had the 911 operator on the line. But his old flip phone had no light on it, and he and the others were drawn deep in the shadows.
They could see, framed in a sliver of light from the doorway, the stock of Robert Bower’s rifle and his jacket, but little else. Could he see them? As the seconds ticked by, Werber waited for the gunman to spray the closet with bullets.
‘This person walks in and the door shuts but I had long enough time to see that he had a jacket, shirt, pants and a long gun, and he doesn’t see us,’ Werber said to CBS.
‘He steps over Mel’s body like it’s a log. I assume he was looking to the back of the room but he couldn’t see anything because there was no light. And then I assume he stepped over going back and pushed the door the other way and didn’t look back, thank God, and walked out.’
11 people lost their lives at Tree of Life in an attack officials have labeled the worst single act of violence against Jews in America since the country’s founding
‘I was barely breathing,’ Werber recalled. After seeing that Wax had been killed, Werber said that he thought he would be next.
Werber could do nothing but wait. The closet they were in had a back door, Werber said, but in the darkness he could not see it.
Perlman, the rabbi, managed to find his way out at some point. But the other two remained until police came to lead them out.
‘I lost my yarmulke in the process,’ Werber said. ‘I still had my prayer shawl.’
When police tactical teams entered the synagogue, a spent ammunition magazine lay in the hallway – and four bodies were sprawled across the atrium.
Bowers exchanged more gunfire, then retreated to the third floor. Four officers were wounded before authorities cornered the gunman.
At 11:08, Bowers, bleeding from wounds, crawled from his hiding place and raised his hands.
‘All these Jews need to die,’ he said to an officer.
In the end, 11 people lost their lives at Tree of Life in an attack officials have labeled the worst single act of violence against Jews in America since the country’s founding.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, right, of the Congregation hugs Rabbi Cheryl Klein, left, of Dor Hadash Congregation and Rabbi Jonathan Perlman during a community gathering
The victims included Dor Hadash congregant Jerry Rabinowitz, who reportedly went in to try to help the wounded, as well as three members of New Light: Richard Gottfried, a dentist looking ahead to retirement; Dan Stein, a new grandfather; and Wax, a retired accountant who was a ‘gem and gentleman,’ Werber said.
During his interview with CBS, Werber was holding two rings: one his wedding ring and the other belonging to his mother.
‘When my wife had her stroke and then they found out she had cancer again, I picked up my wedding ring and I put my mother’s wedding ring on the same finger,’ Werber said. ‘It was the anniversary of my mother’s passing that I was praying there for. I wouldn’t have been there for any other reason. I still feel that she was watching me, but the good Lord was watching me.’
Before the interview ended he was asked if he would ever set foot inside the synagogue ever again. He said that he probably will but ‘probably with some trepidation.’
‘I spent four years in the service. I was in the Air Force from ’60 to ’64. I’ve never been as frightened in my life,’ he said. ‘I’ve never been and I hope to God I’m never in this situation. And I worry that it’s going to happen again and again and again.’
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said that Saturday was a ‘typical Shabbat morning’ when he began services for one of three congregations meeting in the Pittsburgh synagogue