At 8.46 and 9.03 in the morning on September 11, 2001, hijacked planes crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. At 9.59 a.m, the south tower collapsed, followed by the north at 10.28, officially leaving in their wake 2,753 people dead in the city at the hands of terrorists. Eyewitnesses recounted the horrific attacks; cameras captured much of the devastation. Now, each year on the anniversary of 9/11, countless people grow silent to memorialize these four moments time stamped on the world’s collective memory.
But there was one more murder in New York City that day. There are no known witnesses, no video footage, no special public memorials and no moment of silence at exactly 11.42 p.m. Instead, only a handful of far-flung mourners still commemorate death number 2,754 — a slaying just as senseless as those miles away, but one seemingly destined to remain forever without answers as time marches forward and the crime becomes a forgotten footnote in history as the city’s only still-unsolved murder on 9/11.
By all accounts, Henryk Siwiak was a devoted husband, father, son and brother. In a telephone interview from her home in Kraków, Poland, his widow, Ewa Siwiak, described him as a ‘calm’ man who grew restless after losing his job as an inspector for the Polish railroad. ‘He wanted to repair our standard of life and to earn some money,’ she said.
So Henryk traveled from Kraków to Rockaway, Queens, in the fall of 2000. His scientist-turned-high school biology teacher wife had mixed emotions about him leaving for America, but he wanted to go. She decided the experience ‘may be good for him.’
Henryk settled into an apartment minutes from his older sister, Lucyna Siwiak, who has been a resident of Queens since the mid-1990s. He formulated a simple plan: find work in order to support Ewa, and their two children, Gabriela, and Adam, then aged 16 and 9.
None of the Siwiaks could have foreseen the decision would result 11 months later with Henryk facing death alone on a dark Brooklyn street he only ended up on via a tragic twist of fate.
September 11, 2001, started normally enough in Kraków, but Ewa — who had just marked her twentieth wedding anniversary with Henryk six days before — and her son became alarmed when, at around 3 p.m. Polish time (9 a.m. on the East Coast), television news began broadcasting images of what was happening in New York. ‘We [were]very frightened,’ Ewa recalled.
They had good reason to be scared.
Speaking on the phone in Kraków through a translator, Lucyna, 69, said her brother witnessed the attacks on the Twin Towers because he was working at a construction site in Lower Manhattan that morning. Like thousands, Henryk was forced to flee the area. He ‘walked [on]the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn,’ and then ‘went by subway to his place.’
There he managed to call his wife late in the afternoon. ‘We talked,’ Ewa recalled, noting there was no way Henryk could have been fully aware of exactly what he had just witnessed ‘because his TV [was]out of order’ and he didn’t speak or understand English very well.
‘I asked him, “Don’t, please, leave your home this day,”’ Ewa said. ‘He agreed with me, but what happens next I don’t know exactly. But I think someone phoned to him and offered him a job.’ Ewa, her voice growing quiet, added: ‘And this hardworking man went.’
Lucyna explained Henryk was ‘crazy’ about earning money for his family in Poland and ‘probably felt that he must work that day.’ Despite what he had just witnessed, he began searching for a replacement job immediately after he returned home and found a now-defunct temp agency’s help wanted ad in the Polish newspaper Super Express: ‘Men to Clean Stores in Brooklyn and Queens. English Not Necessary.’
The agency offered Henryk an overnight gig mopping floors at a Pathmark supermarket. Though he mostly worked in construction, he accepted anyway.
Henryk was told to meet a man at 1525 Albany Avenue in Farragut, Brooklyn. He put on a pair of black boots, camouflage pants and matching coat he had bought at the Salvation Army, which his sister noted were his favorite because they were so comfortable. He also threw an extra pair of shoes and pants in a backpack and asked his landlady, Anna, for help with directions. The two consulted a map and she mistakenly pointed him to the exact opposite end of Albany Avenue from where he needed to go. Henryk, bringing with him the supermarket’s address scrawled on a piece of paper, left his Beach 91st Street apartment in Rockaway and set off on the A train into the heart of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, almost four miles north of his intended destination.
While Henryk made his way in the wrong direction on the subway, Sharonnie Perry had been sitting in front of her building at 7 Albany Avenue. ‘It was 9/11, everything had just happened that day, and people were just outside still in awe about what had taken place,’ she said.
Like most in the city, Perry, now 64, wasn’t ‘focused’ that night, but she does remember spotting Henryk. His camouflage fatigues were out of place, and ‘nobody could understand him; he didn’t speak English,’ she said. ‘I’m assuming he was just lost.’
After he wandered around for a while, ‘I saw [Henryk] coming down the block,’ continued Perry. ‘I saw these guys behind him.’
Perry knew most of her neighbors personally or by appearance, but she didn’t recognize the group she believes was following Henryk on Albany Avenue. Now, nearly two decades later, she can only recall they were ‘three or four’ African-American males.
Beyond that, ‘it just didn’t register,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what they looked like. I don’t know what they were wearing. It was dark outside and they were on the opposite side [of the street]from where I lived.’
At 11.42 p.m., 18 minutes before the deadliest day in the city’s history came to a close, Mona Miller, a neighbor at 121 Decatur Street, at the intersection of Albany Avenue, near where Perry sat, later said she heard men ‘talking, arguing.’
Then chaos erupted.
‘All I heard was the gunshots,’ recalled Perry. ‘People just started scattering all over the place, because you didn’t know where [they were]coming from and you didn’t know what was going on.’
Henryk’s attacker squeezed off seven rounds from a .40-caliber pistol. One bullet ripped through the Pole’s chest and lung. Dripping blood, he staggered across the street, climbed up the stoop of 119 Decatur and rang the building’s buzzer.
‘I heard the bell ringing, but I wasn’t answering it after I heard those shots,’ a resident of the brownstone reportedly told investigators.
Even if the person had opened the door, it wouldn’t have mattered. Henryk, 46, dropped his backpack, stumbled back down the stairs and fell facedown dead on the sidewalk, still clutching the piece of paper with directions in his hand.
The 79th Precinct’s response to the 911 calls was swift, but their numbers were limited since most investigators and the Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit were still tied up from the terror attacks earlier in the day.
The precinct suffered 25 murders in 2001. Every one, with the exception of Henryk’s, had on average six to eight detectives scouring the scene for evidence and witnesses, then-Lieutenant Tom Joyce, who has since left the NYPD, said in a 2016 interview. Through no fault of the police department, there was hardly anyone to spare for this Polish immigrant. ‘I sent one detective over there, with a Polaroid camera, who took one photo,’ said Joyce. ‘It was really unfortunate.’
With so few clues to go on, the authorities, family and the public are left with little more than theories about what could have happened that night.
Was Henryk the victim of a mugging? Possibly, but the idea was largely discredited since he was found with his wallet in his back pocket and over $75 in cash and change.
Another popular theory was that the Polish native could have been mistaken for a terrorist. Lucyna to this day wonders if Henryk’s darker complexion, unusual choice of fatigues and his inability to speak or understand English, raised alarm with locals or undercover cops in the tense post-attack atmosphere.
Perry rejected the idea. ‘Why would a terrorist be in the middle of Bed-Stuy for something that happened at the World Trade Center?’ she asked. ‘Let’s be realistic.’
Lucyna hasn’t heard from detectives since around 2005, but she said they hypothesized then — though there was scant evidence to prove it — her sibling’s murderers were likely a ‘band of teenagers’ who ‘had to kill a man’ to be initiated into an area gang.
Whatever the case, of the many people outside or living just yards away from where Henryk lost his life, no eyewitnesses to the shooting have ever come forward with details or information that could shed light on the murder.
Detective George Harvey, who was at the 79th Precinct when Henryk was killed and is currently responsible for the cold case, said in an interview several years ago that investigators have always believed they would someday find ‘the right guy with the right information’ — maybe someone arrested for an unrelated crime and willing to trade that information for a deal.
Perry, currently the director of community relations for Brooklyn’s Interfaith Medical Center, located two blocks from where Henryk died, isn’t so sure the mystery will ever be solved.
‘If anybody knows something, it would be the people that did it,’ she said, frustrated she’s unable to access any other specific memories of the men she saw that night. ‘That was the only murder in the whole city on that day, and I don’t remember.’
Since Henyrk’s death, his loved ones have struggled to try to move on as well.
‘He left home and I don’t know what happened; for 17 years I don’t know what happened,’ said Ewa.
‘I’m 66 now,’ she continued. ‘I’m working full-time. My husband was a hardworking man, but I’m a strong woman. I was and I will be. There’s only one option for me: to be strong for my children.’
Still, she added of police maybe someday finding whoever killed her husband, ‘I have a little hope… a little, little hope.’