At around 11:45 p.m., on September 11th, 2001, the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, were nearly empty as most residents were transfixed by TV screens, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the terror attacks that had shaken the city earlier that day.
But Mona Miller who lives at 121 Decatur Street just off Albany Avenue, was taking care of her ailing mother, and she suddenly heard an argument and then a gunshot.
“I heard a couple of men talking, arguing and I heard a shot,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I heard a shot or couple of shots but I didn’t come to the window because I don’t dare come to the window.”
After the police arrived, she peered out the window and saw a man in a military fatigues lying on the sidewalk in front of the building next door: It was Henryk Siwiak, a Polish immigrant, who had been fatally shot in the chest.
It was the only homicide in New York City recorded on September 11, 2001. And it remains unsolved.
Ten years later it’s hard to reconstruct Siwiak’s last day and even harder to find a motive for his killing. Police recovered seven shell casings from across the street, but only one bullet that came from 0.40 caliber handgun hit him.
The 46-year-old father of two was in the midst of looking for a job. Work was the reason he had come to the U.S. 11 months earlier.
In Poland he worked at the railroad, but didn’t earn much and had little prospects of improving his family’s situation.
His sister, Lucyna, had been living in the U.S. for six years. When he made the trip and decided to stay for a while — even though he didn’t have legal documents — he lived with her in Far Rockaway, Queens, and then moved only a few blocks away.
He did all kinds of jobs: construction, cleaning — whatever brought in cash.
(Photo: Lucyna Siwiak, Henryk's sister, holds a photo of her late brother/by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)
Every month he sent a few hundred dollars to his wife Ewa and two children, Gabriela, then 17, and Adam, 10, whom he left in Cracow, his sister said. He was quiet, she said.
“He never drank alcohol and didn’t have many friends,” Lucyna said.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, he went to Lower Manhattan.
According to his sister says he worked there at a construction site, but after the attack on the World Trade Center his workplace was shut down.
So he walked to Brooklyn and sometime later went to a Polish employment agency. There he was offered a job: to clean a Pathmark supermarket in Flatbush. The pay was around $10 an hour and he would start that same night.
Before that he went home and called his wife.
“I told him just in case: don’t leave tonight, because it can be dangerous in New York,” said Ewa Siwiak in a recent phone interview.
“But it later turned out he was supposed to go late at night to a neighborhood that he didn’t know at all. He borrowed a map from his landlady. I spoke to her later. She tried to stop him, told him it wasn’t a good neighborhood, it was not a good time to go there, and definitely not on that particular day.”
But he went anyway. He took the A train from Far Rockaway and got off at Utica Avenue station. He walked toward Albany Avenue where the supermarket was located.
But his directions were way off. The store was almost four miles south from where he was. Then he took a wrong turn and ended up on Albany Avenue between Fulton and Decatur Street. (Photo left/by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)
“The best time to walk between Fulton and Decatur is from 7 a.m. until 11 o’clock a.m.," said long-time resident Michelle Bryce, who has lived on Decatur Street since 1959. “Thereafter you’re on your own."
According to police, Siwiak “got involved with a group of one or more people“ once he got on that block.
“There are no leads,” said Detective Michael Prate of with the 79th Precinct said it’s not clear what prompted the shooting. “The block at that time was an active block for both narcotics and street robberies. … He spoke very little English so if it was an attempted robbery maybe he didn’t understand what was going on.”
Siwiak’s bag was found on the stoop on 119 Decatur Street. Police were not able to determine if any of his belongings were missing.
Siwiak’s sister speculates that her brother was shot because of his appearance.
“He had army uniform and looked like an army man,” she said. “He wasn’t typical Slavic man. He was like Arab or another man from East.”
She said she wonders if Henryk was taken for a terrorist because he was wearing army fatigues.
“At this point everything is possible,” Prate, the detective, said. “We haven’t heard anything like that from any people in the community; nobody has indicated that to us. There is no significant targets that a terrorist would target here.”
There is a $12 000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer, offered by NYPD and Crime Stoppers.
But Siwiak’s wife has no hope the perpetrator will be caught.
Ewa had known Henryk since childhood and his death turned her life upside down. To support her children, she had to quit her low-paying academic job and became a biology teacher in a middle school.
“Ten years passed. Some things are healing. Emotionally, our son felt it the most,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think how I felt. Now I have time to think how I feel and I’m tired of this self-reliance that was forced upon me.”
September 5 of this year it would have been Ewa and Henryk’s 30th wedding anniversary.
(Photo: Henryk’s bag was found on the stoop on 119 Decatur Street/by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska)