When a friend told Marta Johnson about the hostage situation that overtook Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas, she quickly joined the livestream on the synagogue’s Facebook page.
Johnson helps lead High Holiday services at the small, Reform congregation, and for the next hour, she watched in horror with thousands of others as the early moments of an 11-hour ordeal unfolded.
“It really hit me in the gut,” Johnson said in an interview, shortly before agents stormed the synagogue late Saturday night, freeing the hostages and killing their captor.
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Because of the pandemic, only a handful of people were in the sanctuary with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, while the rest of the community watched via livestream.
Johnson said she could not see the hostages or the man who held them, but could hear his voice.
“He was almost incoherent, he was just frantic,” she said. “He was asking the people who were there if they had kids and how many kids they had, and sometimes sounding a little conciliatory. He said to the rabbi, ‘I know you’re not a bad man.’”
At other times, the man’s rambling was hard to follow — “there was no time he didn’t have an agitated sound to his voice,” Johnson said.
He mentioned Jews, and repeatedly referred to his “sister.”
Other outlets reported he was referring to Aafia Siddiqui, an imprisoned Pakistani woman. Representatives of the Siddiqui family said the man is not related to Siddiqui.
Meanwhile, Johnson said Cytron-Walker appeared to be trying to calm down the man holding him hostage.
“I could hear the rabbi asking him if he was hungry, if he wanted something to eat,” she said.
Before the FBI took down the livestream, she said she heard the captor on the phone with the hostage negotiator.
“He was saying he had a gun and he had a bomb,” said Johnson.
Though the FBI said it was unknown why he chose the synagogue, Johnson said she heard a clue.
“The man was saying he had picked that particular synagogue because it was the closest to the DFW airport,” she said.