by Chriss Swaney
I had no idea my new OPC press badges would give me unlimited access to covering one of the most horrific mass shootings of Jewish people in U.S. history.
On a rainy October day in Pittsburgh, Pa., I walked quickly to the first of several press conferences that would unveil the somber and tragic acts of Robert Bowers. Armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, Bowers charged into the sanctuary of the Tree of Life temple in Squirrel Hill, screaming “all Jews must die” before spraying bullets indiscriminately on the worshipers. Killing 11 and wounding six others, FBI officials said the scene was worse than an airplane crash.
Anti-Semitism appeared to run deep for Bowers, 46. Before it was deleted, a social media account believed to belong to him was filled with anti-Jewish slurs and references to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
The victims of his unbridled rage were identified in a second press conference where my OPC press tags once again helped me secure a front row seat in a jammed press conference room at Pittsburgh’s emergency dispatch center.
As my OPC tags tangled aimlessly around my neck, officials slowly and methodically read the long list of victim names. In addition to the mostly elderly victims who were killed, six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was arrested. Two of the surviving victims remain in critical condition.
Following the press conferences, I was assigned to cover the court proceedings. Without proper identification, you simply do not gain access. I flashed my OPC press badges, a driver’s license and glint of a smile before being searched. Finally, I was whisked through a labyrinth of police security to courtroom 8A, one of the oldest, ornate court rooms in the city.
I slid into a pew and watched the man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre appear in court shackled to a wheelchair. The onetime truck driver, who frequently posted anti-Semitic material online and was described by neighbors as a loner, was charged with 29 federal felony counts and could face the death penalty if convicted.
From the courtroom, I jogged back to the bus stop where my OPC press badges afforded me a free ride on public transit. The bus driver was so impressed with the tangled mass of badge colors that I received another front row seat.
The next stop was coverage of a myriad of funerals for the victims. Press was not permitted in the sanctuaries, so I had to snare mourners when they departed from the service. It was heart wrenching to hear their tearful praise of victims.
Mourners remembered brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal as “the helpers’’ at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where they were among the 11 congregants shot to death on the Jewish Sabbath. Others remembered the kind, giving nature of so many of the victims.
And to my surprise, mourners also thanked me for being there to tell their stories. Unlike some pedantic political pundits who refer to the media as the “enemy of the people;’’ we are, in fact, teachers and messengers of hope. My mother, Gwen C. Swaney used to define journalists as teachers. She would say, “the best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what you should see.’’
May our readers and listeners always enjoy the journey.
Chriss Swaney is a freelance writer for Reuters, Pittsburgh Engineer, U.S. News & World Report, Print Newspaper, Workers Compensation.com, Forward Magazine and Antique Trader Magazine. She has been a member of the OPC since 1997.