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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — With a simple greeting and wearing a navy blue coat that reads “Chaplain” across the back, Bob Ossler is a constant these days at corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues in Squirrel Hill.
“My name is Bob, and I’m a chaplain out of Cape Coral Fire Department,” he told one passerby.
“It’s a very hallowed place right now,” he told another woman praying.
He’s asked thousands of people the same question over the past few days: “May I pray with you?”
He didn’t intrude, push or prod. He warmly welcomed thousands of mourners and engaged with them in conversations about their faith, their lack of faith, where they live, where they attend service, or where they were when they heard about the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
“Can I put my arm around you?” he asked one woman.
“Yes, yes,” she answered.
“Father God, I thank you for the privilege of praying with this young lady as she shares some of the traumas of her life,” he continued.
He silently stationed himself on the sidewalk, in front of the 11 Stars of David, bearing the name of each victim killed in last weekend’s horrific tragedy.
As the funerals began, and the piles of flowers grew, Ossler stayed put.
“Give her strength. It took courage to come here, Father, so be with her. Give her a wonderful day, Lord, and may I touch more hearts today as we share, grieve, smile and laugh together,” he prayed with one woman.
“Aw, Bob, that was wonderful,” she answered.
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Ossler is a firefighter and chaplain originally from Chicago. He now lives in Cape Coral, Florida, and said he was weed-whacking when his wife called him with the news of Pittsburgh. He said he hopped on the next plane and landed in Pittsburgh for the first time.
“These people will just pour their heart out, and I’ll just listen, and a lot of times, they’ll just put their heads on my chest and just cry,” said Ossler.
He’s no stranger to the pain. He started his mission after the Sept. 11th terror attacks.
“I was at Ground Zero, and I did over 300 funerals at Tower 2 Ground Zero,” he said. “It took me 15 years, but I wrote a book ‘Triumph Over Terror’ about that experience.”
From there, he helped mourners cope during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
He said he arrived in Pittsburgh “without high expectations,” but called the trip nothing short of transformative.
“These people won’t be beat down. These people are strong people. I’m amazed and impressed, and I love this community,” said Ossler.