How the ‘darkest day in Pittsburgh’s history’ unfolded 

The killing took little more than 20 minutes. Eleven people lay dead or dying inside the synagogue as the gunman switched between assault rifle and his three handguns, descending into the basement and back to the first floor.

But as he made his way out of the door to leave he was confronted by two armed police officers.

He ran back inside and climbed two flights of stairs as the officers gave chase, according to new details of the deadly attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh released by prosecutors on Sunday. 

Scott Brady, US attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said the death toll could have been much worse if the suspect had left before police arrived.

“Without hesitation, without concern for their safety they ran toward gunfire to protect innocent victims,” he said.

Robert Bowers, 46, is accused of storming the building during a Sabbath morning service. He is due to appear in court on Monday to face 29 charges – including 11 of counts of murder, which police are treating as a hate crime.

Authorities said he wore tactical gear and carried an AR-15 rifle and three Glock 357 handguns into the building at about 9.50am – and used all three, leaving shell casings scattered on the floor. Officials told the AP that Bowers had a licence to carry firearms and legally owned his guns.

Rabbi Eli Wilansky lights a candle after a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhoodCredit:
 Steph Chambers

He was cornered by a Swat team on the third floor after a firefight that wounded four officers and the gunman.

Police chatter picked up by a local scanner revealed details of a tense standoff as officers feared he may be wearing an explosive vest.

But within minutes the wounded suspect crawled towards police officers to give himself up.

“They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews,” he repeatedly told arresting officers, according to the complaint.

Bob Jones, the special agent leading the FBI investigation, said he left behind the “the most horrific crime scene” he had seen in 22 years of service.

The result is a community in mourning and a city in shock.

Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh, said the Jewish community was the “backbone” of the neighbourhood and the “fabric” of the city.

“We will get through this darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history by working together,” he said.

The neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill took on an air of quiet mourning on Sunday. Its streets stayed empty apart from dog walkers and the handful of people leaving flowers at a makeshift shrine outside the synagogue.

Robert Bowers, the suspect of the attack at the Tree of Life synagogueCredit:

“What’s my country coming to,” asked one local, who asked to remain anonymous so she could speak more freely. “There’s something about the climate now.

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“Maybe there were always people like this but there’s something allowing them to act out.”

The attack came one day after a man was arrested on suspicion of sending bombs in the mail to mostly prominent political figures, mostly Democrats including former President Barack Obama and George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, ahead of next week’s divisive congressional elections.

Cesar Sayoc has been charged with five federal crimes. Video showed his van covered in stickers professing his support for Donald Trump and featured a CNN presenter caught in crosshairs.

Investigators told a news conference on Sunday that they would be poring through Bowers’ online life as they build a case against him.

He used an account on Gab, a social medial platform popular with white supremacists, to share antisemitic comments and memes.

“Jews are the children of Satan,” read his biography.

He also spread content about “migrant caravans” moving through Central America, sharing unfounded conspiracy theories that suggested Jews were helping immigrants reach the US.

Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in PittsburghCredit:

Similar theories are widely shared among Rightwing websites and sometimes name Mr Soros as a key donor.

“I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders’,” read one post, less than a week before the shooting. “I like this.”

The US has seen a sharp upturn in antisemitic attacks during the past two years.

Mr Peduto, the mayor, said he had heard President Donald Trump’s comments that the attack might not have happened if the synagogue had armed guards but said it was difficult to protect against irrational behaviour.

“I think the approach we need to be looking at how we take the guns – which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America – out of the hands that are looking to express hatred through murder,” he said.

He added that he was heartened by the deluge of support he had received from across America and around the world.

Pope Francis led prayers for Pittsburgh in St Peter’s Square.

"In reality, all of us are wounded by this inhuman act of violence," he said as he prayed for God "to help us to extinguish the flames of hatred that develop in our societies, reinforcing the sense of humanity, respect for life and civil and moral values."


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