The rabbi who survived the terrorist siege at a Texas synagogue over the weekend recounted the chilling situation and his courageous escape in a Monday interview.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker recalled the rattling experience, in which a man took him and three other people hostage at Congregation Beth Israel during Shabbat services on Saturday.
“It was terrifying. It was overwhelming and we’re still processing. It’s been a lot. It’s completely overwhelming,” he said during an interview with CBS Mornings.
Law enforcement officials told CBS that Cytron-Walker had maintained a sense of calm throughout the horrifying episode. The rabbi said that his training as clergy prepared him to be a “non-anxious presence” during the eleven hour standoff. “You do what you have to do,” he said.
The terrorist, who the FBI named as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, reportedly knocked on the door of the synagogue before Cytron-Walker welcomed him in and made him a cup of tea. Struggling to speak on air, the rabbi said that he didn’t notice anything suspicious about the character until they prayed together.
The rabbi said he realized something was amiss when, during prayer, as his back was turned away from the man, he heard a click and “it was his gun.” The man then revealed himself and started ranting for hours about his family and Islam, according to a Facebook livestream broadcast from inside the house of worship.
“If anyone tries to enter this building, I’m telling you . . . everyone will die,” he said during the livestream. He demanded the prison release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of attempting to murder U.S. soldiers while Siddiqui was in their custody in Afghanistan in 2010.
After six hours, the terrorist released one hostage unharmed, leaving the remaining three to face him. “We were threatened the entire time but, no, fortunately none of us were physically injured,” the rabbi told CBS.
For the past few years, the rabbi said, the congregation has received course instruction with the FBI, Colleyville police department, Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network to ready it for a situation like the one he endured.
“They really teach you, that when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety,” he said. The rabbi then shared the pivotal moment when they orchestrated a breakout.
“During the last hour of the standoff, he wasn’t getting what he wanted. It didn’t look good, it didn’t sound good. We were terrified. And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure that the two gentlemen who were with me, that they were ready to go. The exit wasn’t too far away,” he explained. “I told them to go, I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door, and all three of us were able to get out without a shot being fired.”
There were reports of a loud explosion and gunfire before Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced on Twitter late Saturday night that all the hostages were out “alive and safe.”
The FBI and local police said at a news conference Saturday night that the gunman was killed during an exchange of gunfire after a hostage rescue team breached the synagogue.
While the memory of what happened within the building is haunting, the rabbi said returning to the synagogue for services is something “we are definitely going to do.”
“We’ve experienced great difficulty and great challenge as a people. And at the same time, we’ve experienced great resilience,” he said. Cytron-Walker noted that it was fortunate that most of the congregation had tuned into the service online rather than in-person.
“I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive,” the rabbi wrote on Facebook following the incident.