First responder: Pittsburgh scene was chaotic

Two first responders describe the scene at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue as a police SWAT team moved in to stop a gunman attacking worshipers.

Posted: Oct 30, 2018 5:31 PM
Updated: Oct 30, 2018 5:59 PM

Even as a police SWAT team moved in to stop a gunman killing and wounding worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, medical first responders were likewise rushing toward the gunfire to help the injured.

Two first responders -- both members of Pittsburgh's Emergency Medical Services -- talked with CNN's Anderson Cooper Monday night, describing the "chaotic" scene Saturday at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 people were killed and six others wounded.

Lenny Weiss, an emergency medicine doctor with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and EMS crew chief Mark Pinchalk recounted how they found themselves working in the frantic life-and-death moments of what the Anti-Defamation League.describes as the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history.

As a rampage raged

Weiss lives near the synagogue and told Cooper that he was alerted to the ongoing rampage first-hand. The staccato sound of gunfire jarred him from sleep.

"I woke up with what I thought was construction (noise), realized it was automatic weapon fire," Weiss said. After calling EMS dispatch he quickly went outside and saw his colleagues taking formation in neighboring yards.

Meantime Pinchalk had responded to a call for help and took operational command of the EMS efforts, forming a rescue task force of police and paramedics to move into what was still an active-shooter scene.

He said Weiss wanted to go in but was sent back as he was without ballistic protection. The physician instead established a command post just down the block to organize logistics.

'Chaotic' scene countered by training

Pinchalk's team of police and paramedics started moving to where casualties were believed to be.

"It was chaotic but we've been doing a lot of training on this, for this contingency, the last two years," he said.

"Our tactical medics attached to SWAT were actually the first ones in and started finding deceased, unfortunately. We found a couple of live victims that they treated very aggressively and extracted from the building.

"They worked their way to the third floor (of the synagogue) with the SWAT team and when SWAT came under fire and had a couple of casualties our tactical medics called us up for additional support so we moved in and they handed off the patients to us. We started treating and working on evacuating them," he said.

The suspect becomes an EMS subject

The alleged gunman, who authorities said surrendered to police after suffering injuries in the shootout, was treated by those who had rushed to the scene to aid his victims.

"After he surrendered we did have to provide care to him. It was a little hard for some of our younger guys. Legally, morally we have to provide the same standard of care to him as we do anybody else," Pinchalk said.

The suspect, identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers, was treated at a hospital and released for a court appearance Monday. Four police officers were also injured, with two still receiving hospital treatment Monday.

Despite the horror of the situation, both first responders praised the sense of community it had provoked.

"I think everyone's rallying -- I know people from the public safety community have been calling us up, providing us support and in the community here too I think everyone's formed a pretty tight bond around us," Pinchalk said.

"We are a very strong, peaceful, diverse community here. The biggest thing is when something happens we are ready to respond. We have physicians, we have medical professionals, paramedics that are highly trained to deal with these situations," Weiss commented.

"It's just a shame that we would ever to use this anywhere in our country let alone our town, our neighborhood," he said.

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