On September 11, 2001, the city of New York saw 2,607 people murdered. 2,606 of those souls were lost when two planes that had been hijacked by monsters flew them into the Twin Towers. These lives, the lives of so many who were surely so loved by those in their lives, will never be forgotten, though most of us will never know all their names. Their final moments are forever etched into the skin of history. Their deaths have been used to show the greatness of humanity – from the police and firefighters who ran into the towers when every fiber of their being was surely telling them to go the other way, to the men and women from across the planet that came to the site to do whatever could be done to help a hurting city, even if it was just to give some of their blood in the hopes that it would help in some small way.
Those 2,606 lives, and the untold numbers of lives of so many others who will, each and every day, live with the loss of those people – of the helpers who now suffer from terrible illnesses because they put others before themselves, will be remembered, if not by name, by deed.
Henryk Siwiak, sadly, has all but been forgotten.
Henryk Siwiak’s story could well have been the basis of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land.” Born and raised in Krakow, Poland, Henryk was married to Ewa, a high school biology teacher. Together they raised two children, Gabriella and Adam. Each day, as his wife and children went to school, Henryk went to work for the Polish State Railways. That all changed in 2000 when Henryk was laid-off. It was a blow to the economic security of the family, but Henryk was an optimist – he believed that something would come along, that he wouldn’t be out of work for long.
Henryk took some time to visit his sister Lucyna who had moved from Poland to New York six years earlier. While visiting his sister, Henryk was offered some construction work – he would have to stay in Far Rockaway, Queens, some four thousand miles from his family, and the work wasn’t easy, but it paid more than he had been making at the railway and he could stay with Lucyna and send money back – enough money that, with some luck, Henryk and Ewa could buy a new house in a year or so.
Henryk took the job. He worked each day, and at night he would practice his english. Henryk struggled to learn the language, but he was determined. He took classes and spent evenings watching American TV with his sister. Like so many immigrants before him, Henryk came to love what he saw in America, what he saw in New York. He became a regular face of his neighborhood, and with his camouflage jacket, olive skin and dark hair, Henryk looked less like a Polish immigrant and was often mistaken for someone of Arab descent.
On September 11, 2001, Henryk was working at a construction site in Lower Manhattan, and when the first plane hit, everything stopped. As it became clear to everyone that what was happening wasn’t a horrific accident, but a planned attack, the area was evacuated. Henryk, along with thousands of others, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew that it would be weeks, if not months, before work restarted on the site, and he couldn’t afford to wait . Ewa and the kids were counting on him.
Henryk returned to his sister’s house and went through the job listings in NOWY DZIENNIK, a Polish-language newspaper. He found an opening for a cleaning service looking for someone to work nights at a Pathmark supermarket. Henryk called the number on the listing and was told to head to Bay Ridge where he would meet with someone on Albany Avenue. Henryk hadn’t been to Bay Ridge, and asked his sister’s landlady to help him with directions. They looked over a subway map and came to the conclusion that Henryk needed to take the A train and get off at the Utica Avenue station. Henryk thanked her, put on his camo jacket and headed off to his new job.
What the landlady didn’t know was that while she was helping Henryk get to 1 Albany Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the address he needed to reach was over three miles away at 1525 Albany Avenue.
Henryk arrived at the Utica Avenue station right around 11 P.M. According to witnesses, he walked along Fulton Street toward Albany Avenue, but at Albany Avenue, Henryk turned right when he should have turned left. This mistake lead Henryk into a section of Bedford-Stuyvesant that the NYPD marked off as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York. Because of the heightened risk of the area, the NYPD normally had a larger presence there, but the attack on the towers that morning had pulled all services into Lower Manhattan. After all, the whole of the city, if not the country, was in a state of shock. No one was walking the streets looking to cause problems that night.
What happened next is unknown, though there are some theories. Lost, speaking little english, and not aware of just how dangerous the neighborhood was, one belief is that Henryk happened upon a drug deal. Another theory is that, like so many others had before, someone mistook Henryk for a person of Middle Eastern lineage and decided to take their anger over the World Trade Center attack out on him.
Whatever the case, shortly before 11:40 P.M., residents on Decatur Street heard an argument followed by gunshots. One of the shots struck Henryk in the chest, puncturing his lung. Henryk stumbled to the stoop of a rowhouse on 119 Decatur Street and struggled to hit the doorbell. The residents of the building, fearing for their own safety, ignored it. Henryk rang again, but still no one stepped up to help him. Dying, the Polish immigrant made his way back to the street and collapsed. He died before paramedics arrived at the scene. With just a few minutes left in a truly horrible day, a final life was taken on the streets of New York.
Henryk’s death went all but unnoticed by the city. His murder was only reported in a single paper, NOWY DZIENNIK, and even there, it was barely a paragraph on a page. Sixteen years later, the murder of Henryk Siwiak remains unsolved.
Henryk’s sister Lucyna had her brother cremated, and his ashes sent home to Poland for Ewa, Gabriella, and Adam to bury. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, Lucyna heads to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where she joins the masses who come to pay their respects to those who were lost on 9/11. As the others remember the tragedy of the 2,606, Lucyna mourns the loss of just one.