PITTSBURGH - It was a morning that shook a city to its core.

Even as the adrenaline began to subside, even as the danger ended, even as fear began to lose its grip, there was no getting back to normal. Police and public alike found themselves face to face with pain, sadness and loss - three Pittsburgh police officers had been killed.

It began, as tragedy often does, with the routine.

Pittsburgh police Officers Paul Sciullo III and Stephen Mayhle were about an hour short of ending their overnight shifts yesterday when 911 dispatched them to 1016 Fairfield St. in Stanton Heights at 7:05 a.m..

The call, described as a domestic argument between a mother and son with no weapons involved, was also heard by Officer Eric Kelly, who had just finished his 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift. Still in uniform but driving his personal white van to his Stanton Heights home, he decided to swing by Fairfield to provide extra backup for his fellow officers from the Zone 5 station in East Liberty.

With 14 years on the force, Officer Kelly knew domestic calls can be the most dangerous an officer faces.

This call would underscore the sad truth.

Within minutes, all three officers were fatally shot by the subject of the domestic call, later identified as Richard "Pop" Poplawski, 22. A dishonorably charged Marine, he adhered to a number of right-wing conspiracy theories and expressed fears of a "Zionist nation" revoking his right to own guns.

Police said he'd also spent the night drinking.

Police said Poplawski knew his mother had called 911. He apparently lay in wait for them, armed with an AK-47 assault-style rifle, a .22-caliber rifle and a revolver and wearing a bulletproof vest.

Poplawski shot Officer Sciullo in the head when the officer reached the doorway, police Chief Nate Harper said. He shot Officer Mayhle, who was right behind Officer Sciullo, in the head as well, the chief said.

Officer Kelly was shot just after pulling up to the scene. Gravely wounded, he nonetheless used his radio to report that officers were down. Other officers succeeded in geting Kelly out of the line of fire, but he later died.

The shootings were but the start of a four-hour siege in which Officer Timothy McManaway was wounded in the hand while trying to help Officer Kelly. Officer Brian Jones broke his leg when a fence collapsed as he was trying to secure the back of the scene.

Poplawski also was wounded multiple times in the leg. He later was listed in fair condition in UPMC Presbyterian.

Before surrendering, he exchanged hundreds of rounds of gunfire with SWAT officers from his bedroom window, while taking time to call friends and tell them he was going to die, that he had been hit in his bulletproof vest and leg, and that he loved them.

Poplawski's mother, with whom he had a strained relationship, was not hurt and hid in the basement until he gave himself up.

Never before in the city's history have three officers lost their lives in the line of duty during a single incident. The last line-of-duty death was in 1995.

Former North Catholic classmate Jeff Loeffle said he recalled Mr. Poplawski as "friendly, happy, the guy you want to be around. He was very, very smart.

"I want to know what happened, why he lost his way in life to want to do this," Mr. Loeffle said. "What makes anybody snap? What went wrong in his life that he couldn't handle? I don't know."