Pittsburgh shooting: 'When I heard the name of someone I knew, I was broken'

Tammy Hepps was in the photo that led early news coverage of the tragedy


Tammy Hepps appeared in the photo that epitomised mourning in the immediate aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, leading news coverage across the world.

Speaking to the JC, she said she overslept that morning and was getting ready to go to her congregation, Beth Shalom, when she realised something was wrong.

A gunman opened fire inside Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue - less than a mile from Beth Shalom -  killing 11 people in what is thought to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history.

“My phone was exploding with messages – usually I don’t use my phone on Shabbat but I could see all these messages coming through with people asking if I was ok,” Ms Hepps said.

Ms Hepps, who often visited the Tree of Life shul, fought back tears as she told the JC about the moment she saw her mother had messaged in capital letters telling her what happened.

She said: “I couldn’t imagine how long my mom had been waiting to hear back from me. Those 10 minutes must have felt like forever. I felt sick and panicked that she was just sitting there not knowing where I was.”

She went straight to her synagogue, which was on lockdown as police cordoned off the area. People inside were just finding out what had happened.

Ms Hepps was "in shock" and felt compelled to do something for the dead. She went home and got her Tehilim.

Her friends Kate Rothstein and Kate's 16-year-old daughter, Simone Rothstein offered to go with her.

A photo of the three of them reading from the book of Psalms a block away from the Tree Of Life, led many of the early news reports.

Ms Hepps said: “It is what Jews do, between when a person dies and when they are buried, that is what we do. It is what I felt like I needed to do in that moment.

“The difficult thing was, the cameras appeared almost immediately, and it was difficult to have kavannah. We felt quite uncomfortable. I just hope that our prayers were received because our intentions were right.

“None of us understood that it would become the picture everyone would use that day. I don’t know how to comprehend what happened, let alone what has happened with the picture.”

Ms Hepps struggled as she described the moment, after she read from Tehilim, when she discovered someone she knew was among the 11 people killed in the attack.

“When I heard the name of someone I knew I was broken. I was supposed to have lunch with them today,” she said fighting back tears and saying she did not want to name the person.

“To think of people dying in that way is devastating. I just hope they weren’t in pain and it happened quickly.”

The suspect, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, is accused of entering the synagogue, which is in the city's Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, at around 10am local time.

He reportedly shouted "all Jews must die" as he opened fire. He eventually surrendered to police following a shootout.

Ms Hepps was one of 11 people on the Pittsburgh affiliate of Bend the Arc, a national group of progressive Jews who wrote an open letter blaming the attack on President Donald Trump.

She said: “Trump is someone whose language of hate and division has emboldened a growing white nationalist movement.

“He shows no signs of understanding this or taking any responsibility for the language he does.”

She added: “People who attended that synagogue were some of the best people. They cared a lot about their Judaism. It is a beautiful community and they were people who did their best to keep the community going.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive