Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto recalls Oct. 27, 2018
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10/27 TrialA look back

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto recalls Oct. 27, 2018

“It was evident that they were all in shock. There was a rawness of emotion that was almost covered over by what felt like a malaise of not knowing what to do.”

Former Mayor Bill Peduto in front of the Tree of Life building on April 23, 2023 (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Former Mayor Bill Peduto in front of the Tree of Life building on April 23, 2023 (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Oct. 27, 2018, began abnormally for then-Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

“It was one of the few days during the month that I had nothing scheduled for the morning, so I tried to catch up on sleep,” he told the Chronicle.

Peduto said he was awakened by his phone ringing but ignored it in favor of a few more minutes of sleep.

When the phone rang again, he knew something needed his attention.

“I had a system with my chief of staff, Dan Gilman,” Peduto said. “If there was something I had to be aware of, he would immediately call twice and I would always pick up.”

When Peduto answered the call, Gilman began uttering words such as “active shooter,” “Tree of Life” and “multiple casualties.”

Those words hit Peduto like “a ton of bricks,” he said.

He told Gilman he would call right back, hung up and said a prayer.

Gilman picked up Peduto, and the two reached the Tree of Life building as police officers were arriving from throughout Greater Pittsburgh. The scene was chaotic, Peduto said.

“The call had been put out that every available officer was to report to the Tree of Life,” he said. “The cars were coming from every direction. We didn’t realize it at the time, but where we were standing, the shooter had a direct shot at us. We were immediately moved to another location where we waited.”

One of Peduto’s first acts was to reassign the officer in charge of the incident. When the mayor arrived, Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Jason Lando, from Zone 5, was serving as incident commander. When Peduto learned that Lando’s grandfather regularly attended services at Tree of Life, he put Pittsburgh fire Chief Darryl Jones in charge until then-Deputy Chief of Police Thomas Stangrecki arrived. Eventually, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, who Peduto said “must have set a speed record,” arrived and took command.

Peduto then began working to safeguard those beyond the Tree of Life building.

“We were facing a situation that might be happening in other temples or shuls,” he said. “We began a phone chain to notify every synagogue in the city of what was happening to get them to lock their doors.”

Only after this process began did Peduto realize it was Shabbat. Instead of telephone calls, he sent officers to every synagogue in the area, instructing them to stay on site for added protection.

Peduto had learned from conversations with Mitch Weiss, then-chief of staff to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, how essential it was to have a constant flow of information to quell rumors.

That goal was frustrated as the public safety director’s phone became waterlogged and unusable in the rain soaking the city that morning.

As Hissrich waited for a new phone, family members began to arrive, “awaiting the worst news that they’ll ever hear in their lifetime and looking at you for help,” Peduto recalled.

The former mayor said he had been friends with some of those people for decades.

“I looked around and thought, ‘Who can I ask for help?’ before realizing it’s just me,” he said.

A specific area was designated for the elected officials arriving — Gov. Tom Wolf, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Speaker of the Pennsylvania House Mike Turzai, U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle and Keith Rothfus, and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald. One of their goals, Peduto said, was to ensure the Jewish community had “anything and everything they needed.”

As the situation inside the building reached a conclusion and the shooter was arrested and taken for medical assistance, Peduto began assessing the magnitude of the situation and delivering accurate information to families as quickly as possible.

He had two partners in that endeavor, he said: the FBI and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Before the FBI even put word out about a center where victims’ families could go for information, they [Federation] had already created a center at the JCC where families were meeting and where counselors were already there to help with the trauma that everyone in that room was facing,” Peduto said.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh was the first place he went after leaving the Tree of Life building.

His voice breaking with emotion, Peduto said it was there that, for the first time, he looked into the faces of friends whose lives were changed forever.

“It was Meryl Ainsman [then board chair of the Federation] who came up to me and hugged me,” he recalled. “There was that person I was looking for when I was outside and thought there was no one to help. That was the first time that morning that somebody helped me.”

Next, Peduto sat at a table with a friend who was trying to reach his mother.

“He pointed to his cellphone and said, ‘She’s not answering,’ later to find out that she was one of the victims,” Peduto said.

After visiting Chatham University, where the FBI had set up a base, Peduto went to the UPMC Mercy Trauma Center to see if there was anything he could do to help the wounded or their families.

On the drive to the hospital, he heard NPR report that the shooting was the most horrific act of antisemitism in American history.

“When I heard that, it was like I wasn’t there,” Peduto said. “It seemed like all of a sudden … Memphis and MLK and Dallas and JFK and now Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life. I had never thought of Pittsburgh like that. It was the opposite. And now, the fact that it would forever be linked in American history hit extremely hard.”

After Mercy, Peduto went to UPMC Presbyterian, where some of the gunshot victims were being treated, then went home to shower before visiting some of the victims’ families, including the Rosenthals. Brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were both killed in the massacre.

“I sat with the family that evening,” Peduto said. “It was evident that they were all in shock. There was a rawness of emotion that was almost covered over by what felt like a malaise of not knowing what to do or if this was actually real.”

That evening, he attended an interfaith service at Sixth Presbyterian Church, then a vigil at the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues.

“There have been very few moments in my life where I felt so much pride of being a Pittsburgher than when I walked out of that church on Forbes and Murray and saw thousands of people,” he said. “I was inside for the service and was impressed that a group of high schoolers could not only fill up that church but build it up to the point where the doorways were completely full. I had no idea I would walk outside and see 10 times that amount. That was something we needed to take us from panic and fear to start the transition toward sorrow and healing.”

Since the massacre, Peduto has worked with a professor from Connecticut and mayors from Orlando and Parkland, Florida, and Dayton, Ohio — all cities that experienced mass shootings — to create a checklist of action items for the first 24 hours after a mass shooting. It’s his way to help change the narrative of what Pittsburgh experienced, he said, and has helped him to heal.

“We’ve worked with the U.S. Conference of Mayors to make sure that [the checklist] is available in every city,” he said. “And I’m still working with the Strong Cities Network to expand that type of training for every mayor and one critical person on their staff throughout the country, and working to create a center for a new institute in Pittsburgh — more news about that later.”

The former mayor — he’s now a distinguished executive in residence at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, a consultant to R-MOR Cyber security and a principal at Sabean Innovation, Inc. — said he leaned on his Catholic faith in the moments and days after the massacre. That helped, he said, when he had no choice but to serve as a leader for Pittsburgh in its time of need.

As for the trial, which began with jury selection on Monday, Peduto said his priorities are the same as they were in the minutes and days after the attack: First, the families of the victims and the survivors; next, the Jewish community; then, the Pittsburgh region.

“When I think about the trial, I think more about a young girl who is starting high school, and all of a sudden this horrible event happened and it reminds her of the stories her grandmother told her, and where is she now?” Peduto said. “Will it bring up recurring trauma?

“The victims of Tree of Life — we’ll never know the true number. We’ve been affected to the core as a city. We have to be cognizant of how people will react when information starts coming out from the trial, information many people have never heard.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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