POWAY, CA (AP) — Eight-year-old Noya Dahan had finished praying and gone to play with other children at her Southern California synagogue when gunshots rang out. Her uncle grabbed her and the other children, leading them outside to safety as her leg bled from a shrapnel wound.
“I was scared, really, really scared,” said Noya, recalling how the group of children cried out of fear after a gunman entered Chabad of Poway on Saturday morning and started shooting. “I didn’t see my dad. I thought he was dead.”
The onslaught on the last day of Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating freedom, wounded Dahan, her uncle Almog Peretz and the congregation’s rabbi. The attack killed beloved congregant Lori Kaye, 60.
Authorities said the 19-year-old gunman opened fire as about 100 people were worshipping exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Rabbi Yishoel Goldstein said he was preparing for a service and heard a loud sound, turned around and a saw a young man wearing sunglasses standing in front of him with a rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul,” Goldstein said. He raised his hands and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.
And then, Goldstein said, “miraculously the gun jammed.”
In the moments that followed, Goldstein said he wrapped his bloodied hand in a prayer shawl and addressed congregants gathered outside the building, vowing to stay strong in the face of the deadly attack targeting his community.
“We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall. We will not let anyone take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down,” Goldstein recalled telling the community.
Authorities said suspect John T. Earnest, who had no previous contact with law enforcement, may face a hate crime charge in addition to homicide charges when he’s arraigned later this week. He was being held without bail, and it was unclear if he had an attorney.
Police searched Earnest’s house and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.
There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.
Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” he said.
Goldstein described Kaye as a pioneering founding member of the congregation and said he was heartbroken by her death. He said the attack could have harmed many more people had the shooter turned toward the sanctuary where so many were praying.
“Lori took the bullet for all of us,” the rabbi said, his hands wrapped in bandages. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
He said that Kaye’s physician husband was called to tend to a wounded worshipper and fainted when he realized it was his wife.
Friends described Kaye as giving, warm and attentive to community members on their birthdays and when they were sick. A wife and mother, she loved gardening and made delicious challah for her family and friends, said Roneet Lev, 55.
When the gunfire erupted, another worshipper, Shimon Abitbul, said he immediately placed his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.
Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel and staying with his daughter and her family in Southern California, said he was still coming to grips with the carnage.
“All of us are human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Jews or Christians or Muslims.”
Peretz, who was wounded in the leg, said he turned around after hearing gunfire and saw the shooter standing by the door. He grabbed his niece by the hand and carried out another child.
He then saw a group of children and got them running, “I tell them, ‘go this way, go this way,” said Peretz, who is visiting from Israel.
Gore said authorities were reviewing Earnest’s social media posts, including what he described as a “manifesto.” There was no known threat after Earnest was arrested, but authorities boosted patrols at places of worship Saturday and again on Sunday as a precaution, police said.
A person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an anti-Jewish screed online about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and praised the suspects accused of carrying out deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, in which 11 people were killed.
“It was a hate crime, no doubt about it,” national security adviser John Bolton said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said investigators have not seen any connection between the suspect and other extremist groups.
California State University, San Marcos, confirmed that Earnest was a student who was on the dean’s list and said the school was “dismayed and disheartened” that he was suspected in “this despicable act.”
Goldstein said President Donald Trump called him to share condolences on behalf of the American people.
The White House acknowledged the call. “The President expressed his love for the Jewish people and the entire community of Poway,” Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.
On Sunday night, hundreds of people gathered at a park for a vigil to honor the victims.
People at the community park near Chabad synagogue in Poway held candles and listened to prayer in Hebrew. Leaders asked community members to do acts of kindness to remember Kaye.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said he would stand with the community, and Rabbi Goldstein said seeing the crowd come together provided consolation.
“What happened to us, happened to all of us,” Goldstein said.