Pittsburgh synagogue rabbi recounts shooting: Congregants ‘were slaughtered in my sanctuary’

ABC News (PITTSBURGH) -- The rabbi of the Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 worshippers were gunned down Saturday said the massacre was not just an attack on the Jewish community.

"It was an attack on America," Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue said on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday.

Suspect Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, allegedly burst into the temple wielding three handguns and an AR-15 assault rifle and spewing anti-Semitic statements just as Myers was starting services Saturday morning. The gunman killed three women and eight men ranging from in age from 54 to 97 before police shot and wounded him.

Even after he was stopped, Bowers allegedly screamed at SWAT team members that he wanted all "Jews to die."

"Many just see this an attack on the Jewish community. It's not," Myers told ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos Monday morning. "When American citizens cannot freely and safely worship in their house of worship and celebrate the Sabbath, it concerns me because it challenges the safety and security of all Americans in any house of worship."

The attack at the Tree of Life synagogue was the third mass shooting at a church in the United States in the past three years.

On Nov. 5, 2017, gunman Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, before taking his own life after an armed civilian fired shots at him as he exited the sanctuary. On June 17, 2015, nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were murdered by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof, who was convicted of federal hate-crime charges and sentenced to death in January.

He said and a dozen congregants were just beginning the service at the temple in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh at 9:45 a.m. Saturday when he heard what he initially thought was a stainless-steel coat rack falling to the floor.

"Within the next 15 seconds, the sound repeated and it was apparent to me at that time, just instinct I guess, that was not the sound of a piece of metal falling, that it was rapid-fire," Myers said.

He immediately instructed people attending the service to drop to the floor, be silent and don't move. He then evacuated some of the congregants out of the sanctuary, but eight remained behind.

"Regretfully, there was no way for me to get back to the remaining eight people that were in the back of the sanctuary," he said. "One of them was wounded. Thank God, she will survive her injuries. The remaining seven people were slaughtered in my sanctuary."

Authorities said Bowers went to three different areas of the synagogue, killing victims. Besides the 11 he shot dead, another six, including four police officers responding to the incident, were injured.

Myers said he immediately called 911 on his cellphone and stayed on the line with dispatchers for 20 minutes as police swarmed the scene and engaged in a gunfight with the Bowers.

"It felt like an eternity," Myers said of waiting for help to arrive.

He said that he would not normally carry his cellphone on Sabbath, but in August he took a course with a community security adviser who convinced him to carry his phone even on that holy day.

As he prepares to conduct funerals for those who were killed, Myers said, "Maybe God has some purpose for me being in the community and perhaps I'm just fulfilling what part of that purpose might be."

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