PITTSBURGH — The trial for the man police say shot and killed 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue is about to get underway, five years after the crime prosecutors say was motivated by hate.
As friends and family members of the victims prepare for the trial, Channel 11′s Rick Earle spoke with the mayor’s former chief of staff, Dan Gilman, who lived blocks away from the scene and lost loved ones that day.
“I can’t even begin to imagine, you know what you have to hear, you know,” said Gilman. “You’re not only reliving it, but you know, unfortunately, we’re hearing new details, or seeing new things.”
While the trial will focus on one of the darkest days in Pittsburgh’s history, the former mayor’s chief of staff is confident the community will once again rally around friends and families of the 11 victims.
“The great thing about Pittsburgh is I have no doubt how we’ll handle it,” Gilman said. “It will be handled the same way we did that day, you know as a community, as a city, that loves each other.”
On that October morning, five years ago, Gilman, who is Jewish, got a text from 911 he’ll never forget.
“It was just a gut punch in the stomach, and you know, I immediately called the mayor, called the police chief, called the public safety director, grabbed my police radio and my city jacket and ran out of the house,” Gilman recalled.
Gilman picked up the mayor before arriving at Tree of Life and establishing a command post for local and state leaders.
“It’s still surreal of course, at that point,” he said. “There’s so much unknown. Everything is a total unknown. What is the safe perimeter to what’s happening to how terrible the tragedy would become.”
Gilman would quickly learn the devastating news that some of his close family friends were among the dead.
“I was being told from the inside who was specifically some of the victims were, and they were people I knew,” he said. “I was getting text messages from families looking for people and so it hit home very quickly.”
“The mayor had a clear and simple message that day that guided their response to the tragedy,” Gilman explained. “Every decision we make as a city, we will follow the North Star of, ‘How does this help the families of those we lost and those who have survived?’ Everything else is secondary.”
During a time of such incredible sadness and tragedy, Gilman says one moment stood out as a beacon of hope, the massive gathering of humanity just hours after the attack.
“That moment, the first night at the corner of Forbes and Murray is still one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Another lasting image for Gilman is the first responders who ran into the synagogue. Some were wounded in the exchange of gunfire.
“They came and they went in, and they saved lives,” he said. “I mean, thankfully, we have neighbors with us today because of what they did.”
But five years later, Gilman says he’s even more concerned about the rise in antisemitism.
“It’s incredibly troubling,” said Gilman. “This wasn’t the wake-up call that we need to stop this. It drove more people to feel emblazoned and empowered to express their open content and hatred for Jewish people and for other communities that are different from them.”
“It’s unacceptable. It’s not the Pittsburgh way. It’s not the American way. It’s not humankind,” Gilman said. “We all need to step up. Hatred against one is hatred against all.”
As the trial is about to get underway, Gilman hopes that in the end, it will ultimately help to heal the wounds.
Earle asked Gilman if this trial may serve as some closure for some of the victims’ families.
“I’m sure when you lose a loved one, in this type of horrific way, there’s never a full closure,” Gilman said. “I can’t begin to imagine, but hopefully, it’s another thing they can put behind them and not spend time thinking about it or preparing for it.”
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