A small group of congregants had just gathered for prayer in the Tree of Life synagogue basement Saturday when the shooting started.
At 9:50 a.m., bloodthirsty anti-Semite Robert Bowers opened fire on a service upstairs with an AR-15-style assault rifle.
One floor down, the New Light Congregation group members assumed they were next.
“Let me be very honest, I was frightened, I was scared, I have a wife at home ill, and I have a son living in Squirrel Hill, and I didn’t want to leave them,” Barry Werber, 76, who was on the lower floor, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Werber and others from his congregation looked over to the stairwell, and their worst fears were realized when they saw a victim’s bullet-riddled body slumped over.
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman quickly ushered them into a storage closet as the gunfire continued to ring out upstairs.
Werber dialed 911 — but was too terrified to speak, lest Bowers come hunting downstairs.
But that’s exactly where he went.
Following a lengthy pause in gunfire, congregant Melvin Wax, 88, opened a door to the basement to see if it was safe to leave.
Bowers gunned him down instantly.
“There were three shots, and he falls back into the room where we were,” Werber said.
Then, “the gunman walks in,” Werber said, recalling the heartstopping moment.
What followed next was nothing short of a miracle.
Bowers walked into a storage closet where three worshippers were hiding, but it was so dark he assumed it was empty.
He left the basement without any further bloodshed.
Meanwhile, law enforcement had gathered outside and at one point got into a shootout with the lone gunman.
Bowers unleashed a fusillade at cops from the building’s atrium, winging one officer in the hand.
“Every unit in the city needs to get here now,” an officer could be heard saying over police radios, according to CNN.
Another cop reported being injured by broken glass.
Then the gunfire paused, and officers debated going into the synagogue around 10:11 a.m., CNN reported.
SWAT teams finally breached the besieged temple at around 10:30 a.m.
They discovered four dead and one survivor in an atrium — along with four more dead and a second survivor scattered throughout secured portions of the building.
At 10:43 a.m., tactical teams went to the basement, where they liberated the remainder of the New Light Congregation.
Meanwhile, Bowers retreated to the third floor and barricaded himself in a room.
Ten minutes later, he injured two SWAT members — one critically — during a shootout on the third floor.
Bowers and cops traded another volley of fire around 10:59 a.m., before the gunman finally gave himself up at 11:08.
“Suspect is crawling, he’s injured, SWAT is telling him to continue to crawl at this time,” an officer reports. “Suspect is talking about [how] all these Jews need to die,” a SWAT officers radioed, according to the Post-Gazette.
Werber is thankful more people had not yet showed up for services by the time Bowers started shooting.
“I’m just grateful we didn’t have more members there. We probably had a number of people on the way, but they hadn’t arrived yet,” he said.
One such worshipper was 80-year-old Holocaust survivor Judah Samet, who was late to the Tree of Life synagogue because he stopped to chat with his housekeeper before heading to services.
The former Israeli soldier, who survived 10 months in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II, showed up in time to see the hateful Bowers desecrating his temple.
“It just never ends,” the tough-as-nails Samet said.
Other survivors confronted Bowers Monday during his first appearance at federal court in Pittsburgh — where he faces 29 federal charges including 11 counts of murder, and could face the death penalty.
“We thought it was important to have someone stand up for the people who were killed or injured — who were unable to be here,” Jon Pushinsky, 64, a friend of slain member Jerry Rabinowitz, told The Post Monday.
The first funerals are expected Tuesday, when brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal will be laid to rest.
Additional reporting by Ben Feuerherd with Post Wires
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