On Wednesday, Frank James, the alleged Brooklyn subway shooter, was arrested in East Village. The unexpected heroes of the story became Francisco Puebla, a hardware store manager, and Zack Tahhan, a security camera installer, who happened to be at the right place at the right time and helped police apprehend the suspect.
These men escaped poverty and war in their home countries to be brought together in New York to end an incident that terrorized the City. Documented spoke with Sakaria Radwan Tahhan, who goes by Zack, and Francisco Puebla, about their immigration stories and lives in New York.
Francisco Puebla first came to New York from the east-central Mexican state of Puebla when he was just about 14 years old, settling down at a cousin’s place in Park Slope. One of eight children, he made the trip to the United States without any family by his side.
Puebla came to the United States for better economic opportunities, he said, but his journey in New York was especially challenging at the beginning. His goal was always to work and send money back home, but he struggled to find employment for his first two years in the City.
“I was practically alone in this country for some time,” he said, standing outside of Saifee Hardware & Garden, the hardware store he manages on 1st Ave. and 7th St. in the East Village, where he spotted the suspect.
“I was so young. I was a kid,” Puebla, now 46, said in Spanish about his arrival in New York. “I come from a poor family, and there were needs that had to be met over there, so I decided to immigrate here [to New York] at that age.”
For about five years, Puebla remained in New York, first working 12-hour days for a tailor shop. “I didn’t go to school,” Puebla said about that time. But he later enrolled in English language classes, to be able to “communicate with people here in the United States,” he said, and received a certificate.
When Puebla was about 16 years-old, he said, he tried to make himself appear older than he actually was to find more work and a better salary to send money back home, he said.
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Puebla has been employed at Saifee Hardware & Garden in the East Village for about 18 years, he said, working his way up the ladder to manager. At one point, Puebla opened his own hardware store in Park Slope, where his family now works.
“The goal was to come and work, and help out my father with what they needed,” Puebla said. “Thank God that I have always been someone who works hard and likes working to earn my money.”
Puebla returned to Mexico in his late teen years to go visit his parents, and then made his way back to New York in his 20s with his wife.
“No one wants to go through what I went through,” he said. “But we do it out of necessity — we didn’t have the opportunities that we have here [in the United States].”
Puebla now has two sons – ages 8 and 12 – who were born in the United States, he said. Though Puebla has lived the majority of his New York City life in Ditmas Park, he used to live in Sunset Park, he said. When heard about the shooting on Tuesday in his old neighborhood, he was shocked.
“When I saw the news, I said: ‘that can’t be, that’s an area where there are a lot of Hispanic people,” he said. “I felt very sad to see that.”
Puebla’s younger son was ecstatic to hear the news that his father helped police take in the subway shooter suspect, Puebla said. Puebla recounted the moment he came home on Wednesday with a smile on his face, noting that his younger son was likely telling his friends at school about how his dad helped apprehend the suspected subway shooter.
As Puebla walked through the doors of his Ditmas Park home on Wednesday evening, his eight-year-old son ran up to him, embracing him and saying: “My hero.”
Sakaria Radwan Tahhan, who likes to go by Zack, was born in the United States. For a short time, he and his parents lived in Bay Ridge, he said. When he was a baby, they returned to Syria – he is the only one of his siblings who has U.S. citizenship.
Tahhan, 21, was living in Aleppo when the Syrian civil war began, he said. He remembers pulling his neighbors out of a building next to his family’s home into the early hours of the morning after it was destroyed during fighting, he said. Eventually, he and his family, including his parents and five siblings, decided to flee the country. They made the journey by foot and bus out of Syria and to Istanbul, Turkey, where he lived until he was about 18, he said.
“It was very hard,” Tahhan said as he stood near the red steps in Times Square.
Tahhan now lives in Union City, New Jersey, and has no family in the area, he said. “I came alone, and I don’t have anybody here,” he said. In New Jersey, Tahhan first worked at a warehousing, moving heavy furniture, he said. Now, he installs security cameras and wants to keep doing more electrical work.
“America is great…I like it here, more safety,” he said. “When I come to America I see — this is the life, for real. Over there [in Syria], it was not life.”
Tahhan, who is one of six children, has a dream of one day bringing his family — who are still in Turkey — to the United States. Every month, he sends money to them.
The attention he has received since Wednesday because of the subway shooter incident has been constant, he said as he scrolled through texts, Facebook and Instagram messages he has been receiving from strangers. Before this incident, he didn’t interact on social media often, he said. Now, he said: “Everybody calls me.”
Many have asked him if he was scared when he saw the alleged subway shooter walking down First Avenue, Tahhan said. But he shakes his head at that.
“I tell them, no,” he said. “I have a strong heart, because I lived in Syria.”
Tahhan speaks at least three languages, he said – adding that he speaks a little bit of Spanish, too. “Un poquito,” he said, smiling – and calling Puebla, the manager from the East Village hardware store “amigo,” a friend.
In Syria, Tahhan’s father owned a hardware store, which Tahhan believes was destroyed by bombs during the war, he said. When his family heard that Tahhan had helped the police apprehend the alleged shooter, they were elated, he said.
Hi father shared some special words with him, Tahhan said, repeating them: “I know you are strong. If you are not strong, I wouldn’t have sent you alone when you were 18 years old…I know you like to help people a lot.”
And when Tahhan heard about the shooting on Tuesday, his mind shifted focus to his home. “I was thinking about how Syria happened,” he said. “I think – ‘oh my God, America. Is it going to happen the same as Syria? No way.”