Hours later, Zack Tahhan headed to the North Hudson Islamic Educational Center in Union City, a mosque in the Hudson County city where he lives, to join the day's last prayers.
When he saw alleged gunman Frank James walking along a street in the East Village, the safety of millions of New Yorkers, and of his family still in Syria, weighed on his mind, he said.
“I was just thinking I want to make the people safe,” Tahhan, 21, said in an interview Wednesday night at the mosque, exhausted but still talkative. "We have to do that if we see somebody do something bad. I worry – maybe he was going to do it again and it’s going to be the same thing."
Tahhan was with two other men when he spotted James and they jumped into action to alert police officers stopped at a red light. Police believe James called a tip line saying he was at a nearby McDonald's, but he had left by the time officers arrived at the restaurant, according to news reports.
For Tahhan, violence like the subway attack on Tuesday does not feel distant. He’s haunted by memories of Syria, and the destruction that rained down on his city of Aleppo. He saw people killed and buildings toppled. His uncle lost his legs during a bombing attack there.
He recalled a harrowing moment of finding his 4-year-old neighbor in the rubble of a neighboring home struck by a bomb.
“I take him in hand. I was 13 years old," he said.
Tahhan was born in Brooklyn, but his family moved back to Syria when he was 1. As a U.S.-born citizen, he was able to come to America when he was 18, but he knew no English and arrived alone, with only the name of a friend of his father in Union City.
Having fled war, he’s thankful for the chance he’s been given, but worries for his family now in Turkey and Syria.
“I need my family. That’s all. I’m worried always. I’m thinking about them. I cannot breathe sometimes,” said Tahhan, for whom "Zack" is short for Sakaria.
The shooting in Brooklyn rattled him deeply. He said he could hardly sleep after seeing the news and the widely shared images of James.
'I want everybody to be safe'
"I was really, really upset. I don't want to talk too much. I want everybody to be safe with their family," said Tahhan, who works at North Bergen-based MACA Security, which installs and maintains surveillance equipment.
Amid that anxiety, he spotted the suspect with his own eyes on Wednesday morning, he said, while he was servicing a surveillance camera at an East Village hardware store. Tahhan shouted at people to step away. He saw a police car stopped at a red light and alerted the cops, he said.
Mohamed Cheikh, a co-worker from North Bergen, and Franciso Puebla, a manager at the store, were with Tahhan and all believed that the man they saw was the person police said they were seeking in connection with the shooting.
Puebla said in an interview with USA TODAY that he also approached the police car to let them know the suspect was there. A swarm of police then arrested James near 1st Avenue and St. Mark’s Place.
The NYPD did not confirm the men’s accounts or say how many tips they received before James' arrest. An artist having lunch with his family told Artnet news that he also flagged down police on St. Mark's Place.
Police say they were searching for James in the vicinity after the tip that he was at McDonald's.
"Officers responded. He was not there. They start driving around the neighborhood looking for him and see him on the corner of St. Mark's and First and they take him into custody," James Essig, chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, said at a press conference Wednesday.
After the arrest, Tahhan became an instant sensation on social media, as videos circulated of him breathlessly describing the encounter: how he feared it was the man in photos distributed by police, how the suspect had a bag that worried him, and how he was fasting for the Ramadan holy month at the time.
In New Jersey, people cheered online as he blurted, “I’m from Syria. I’m from Jersey!" in one interview.
Tahhan had not been to school in a few years in Syria because of the war raging around him. When he arrived in the U.S., he went right to work, putting in six to seven days a week to earn money for his family back home.
In Hudson County, he has found a home at his local mosque, where he prays and volunteers for security and sets up for special events.
On Wednesday night, the mosque was busy for the Ramadan season. Many worshippers said they were proud of the good deed done by someone from their community.
A friend, Jessica Berrocal, described Tahhan as genuine and giving. “He’s a very pure-hearted person,” she said. “He’s willing to put other people first before him.”
Samer Elsammak, who employs Tahhan and Cheikh at MACA Security, said the two were like sons to him. They're known for helping out around the mosque, he added.
“I was thrilled of the way they took action, Elsammak said.
"Alhamdulillah, that’s good for everybody’s sake,” he added, using the Arabic phrase for “praise be to God.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Zack Tahhan: NJ man on Frank James arrest, Brooklyn shooting