PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The corner of Shady and Wilkins in Squirrel Hill, in the eyes of Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, has become a special place: “The ground is sacred at this point. Eleven people died there.”
Dr. Cohen says the corner has become a silent attraction.
“I’ve seen midshipmen cadets, we’ve seen people who just drive by and look with out-of-state license plates and you realize the corner has become a shrine,” he told KDKA’s John Shumway.
That shrine is just a half block from the Cohen family home. It is just across the street from the Tree of Life synagogue.
“The reason we bought the house is you didn’t have to do carpool to go to Hebrew School you just drag them out of bed and down the street,” Dr. Cohen says.
It was a convenience the family loved, but it also put them so close when the shooting started a year ago.
“We had heard the first shots probably when the policemen went to the front door and they were wounded.”
Concerned his mother-in-law was in the synagogue, the Cohens verified she was still at home.
“Then I went outside and I heard the next 20 to 30 gunshots where he was going in and executing people,” he recalls.
As he watched in amazement, the first responders started arriving.
“The first group of policemen came in and there were two pillars and they were huddled behind them.”
“They were told to not go without a vehicle in front of them but they didn’t wait. They charged into it.”
He says the officers created a protective barrier against the gunman coming out of the synagogue and into the neighborhood.
WATCH: KDKA’s John Shumway talks to Dr. Jeffrey Cohen
He says the first responders just kept on coming: “These were people who had no connection with this community or the synagogue or the corner of Shady and Wilkins but they ran to help.”
Dr. Cohen found his way to a paramedic supervisor who was listening to the tactical channel of the police radio as the suspect was taken into custody.
“You could hear him yell ‘we have to kill all the Jews.'”
John Shumway: You heard that?
Dr. Cohen: Oh yeah I heard that, and he said it again when he got off the ambulance at AGH. Oh, he had a very definite agenda.
AGH, of course, being Allegheny General Hospital where Dr. Cohen is not only a physician, he’s also the president of the hospital and oversaw the shooter’s care.
The day after the shooting, this Jewish doctor found himself at Robert Bowers’ bedside.
“I just asked him if he was in pain and if he was being treated okay. And his answer was yes. I said thank you and I left. What I saw, I’ve taken care of a lot of guys like him: he’s just a guy. He wasn’t the face of evil incarnate, he wasn’t the devil, you couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, you could see him in the aisle of Giant Eagle, he was a guy.”
Dr. Cohen says the staff of his hospital and the first responders treated Bowers in a professional manner even though there were many of the Jewish faith among them.
“It’s not easy. There’s a lot of mixed emotions with it, but our job is not to judge, our job is to help.”
John Shumway: How did you not ask why?
Dr. Cohen: I didn’t think it was appropriate.
John Shumway: But you wanted to know?
Dr. Cohen: Of course I did. Of course I did.
Like many other groups, Dr. Cohen says those who practice the Jewish faith have always found themselves the targets of hate with a looming shadow of potential violence.
“Yes, it’s always been a possibility, but across the street, in Squirrel Hill — I never expected that.”
And he worries about the level of anger bisecting the country.
“Words mean things and rhetoric is important and right now the words are mean and rhetoric is hot and the people using it need to take a step back and examine why they are doing it,” he said.
Dr. Cohen says the future of Robert Bowers is up to the courts, and maybe in the process the answers will come to the questions he wanted to ask.
“I would have loved to ask him a lot of questions and maybe someday I’ll get the opportunity, but that was not the place.”
Dr. Cohen and his family lost friends in the shootings, like the Rosenthal brothers.
“Cecil and David were always in service. This was a comfortable place for them and not seeing them is very strange.”
He would like to see the Tree of Life building return in a way that honors those lost and the community response.
“This community distinguished itself and showed what Pittsburgh and I think the rest of the country is made of,” he said.
For the Cohen family, Tree of Life is a house of worship and a place of memories.
The Cohens were married here and raised their children here. “Good memories are still there they don’t change,” he said.
But he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to go back inside: “I’ll let you know, probably.”