Retired psychologist E. Joseph Charny, 90, attended Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh for more than 60 years.
He went to his first service in 1955 and has been a regular at the synagogue in the close-knit Squirrel Hill neighborhood ever since he told the Washington Post.
Charny was inside for Saturday service when Robert D. Bowers, 46, burst in the building heavily armed.
He heard Bowers enter on the floor below. He told the Post:
“It sounded like some big thing falling over, like a coat rack.”
Moments later, the shooter was standing in the doorway of the room where the 90-year-old and several others were waiting for service to start.
That’s when Bowers opened fire. Charny said:
“I looked up and there were all these dead bodies. I wasn’t in the mood to stay there.”
Charny started to run and was joined by the rabbi and his assistant. As a longtime congregant, the 90-year-old knew how to navigate the confusing corridors of the building.
It allowed him to hide from Bowers as the shooting went on, he said:
“The building is complicated.It started off small but then has had a lot of additions. So there are a lot of small spaces. The three of us knew the small spaces.”
The three of them waited in a room full of cardboard boxes, unsure of when to come out. Charny said:
“We all knew leaving too soon would have been our deaths.”
According to CNN, Bowers was leaving the synagogue when he was met by police. They engaged in a shootout that left two officers injured and the shooter also wounded.
Authorities were able to take him into custody. Bowers was carrying three handguns and rifle at the time of his arrest. He killed 11 people and injured several others.
Authorities confirmed that he made anti-Semitic statements online shortly before heading to the synagogue.
Minutes before the shooting, he wrote on the social media platform, Gab:
“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
He is now facing 29 charges, including using a firearm to commit murder and hate crimes. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Charny ultimately made it out of the building safely. He managed to run out to the police.
He said, at first, he felt “numb, then thankful.” He’s working to recover from the “terrible” event he experienced.