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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Matthew Cantor

Zack Tahhan is being hailed for his NYPD tipoff. That’s not the whole story

A man stands in a downtown neighborhood holding a microphone as a crowd in front of him hold microphones, smartphones and cameras aimed in his direction.
Zack Tahhan, a witness who reportedly notified police of Frank James’ whereabouts, tells his story to a gaggle of reporters in New York City. Photograph: John Nacion/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

In the aftermath of the Brooklyn subway shooting, social media has found its latest star.

Zack Tahhan, 21, was quickly anointed as a hero on Wednesday following the arrest of Frank R James, the suspect in the attack that injured 29. But the real story, it seems, was more complicated – and Tahhan wasn’t the day’s only hero.

But he has certainly made the biggest splash. In videos that quickly spread on Twitter, Tahhan explains that he spotted James on security cameras. “I thought, ‘Oh shit, this guy, let me call the police,’” he says in one clip. He was soon telling his story to a gaggle of reporters in Manhattan’s East Village before heading off in a police car, waving as onlookers cheered.

Since then, media reports have established Tahhan as a security camera technician from Syria who arrived in the US five years ago and speaks five languages. “We got him, thank God,” he told USA Today. “Oh, I do my best.”

Videos featuring Tahhan’s upbeat tale received tens of thousands of likes and retweets, and he has inspired a hashtag, #ThankYouZack, and a GoFundMe.

“This is what a hero looks like,” tweeted one poster. “Give this guy a TV show please,” added another. “I’m loving that people who were prevented from entering this country a few years ago are recognized for their heroism,” wrote another admirer of Tahhan, who said he was in the midst of fasting for Ramadan.

Others reminded authorities to give Tahhan a $50,000 reward police promised for assistance in James’s capture. And the New York state attorney general, Letitia James, thanked Tahhan for his bravery: “All of New York is grateful.”

Since Wednesday, however, reports have portrayed a more complex scene – and introduced a few more stars to the cast.

A New York police spokesperson told the Guardian any tips were confidential. But police sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that James called the police himself. He said they could find him at a McDonald’s in the East Village, the sources said. But when they got there, he wasn’t there, the chief of department, Kenneth Corey, told the agency. He was seen on a nearby street corner and police arrested him.

However, several local people say they chipped into the effort. Tahhan credited his cousin Mo Cheikh with helping, telling PIX11 that the two of them had spotted James.

Lee Vasu, a painter and gallery owner, told Artnet he had recognized James while walking with his family in the area. “I told my wife, ‘The subway shooter is right behind us. Go fast. Push the baby. No time for argument. Go,’” he said. After making sure they were safe, he said, he ran back toward James and notified a police officer – though others had also noticed him by that point.

“I was looking at him as if I was drawing him,” Vasu told the site. “As an artist, you study every facial feature really well. I looked at him for quite a while and then half an hour later, there he was. You can’t escape an artist in the East Village.”

Meanwhile, Francisco Puebla, manager of a nearby hardware store, was also on the case, he told the New York Times. Puebla had hired Tahhan to work on his store’s security cameras. “He’s all over social media,” Puebla said, “but I’m the one who took action.”

Still, speaking to USA Today, he portrayed it as a team effort. After spotting James, he said, he asked the two people working on the security system – apparently including Tahhan – “to confirm with me if it was the same guy”. They agreed, “and then we looked at each other and we said, ‘Let’s call the police,’ but I said ‘You call,’ and they said, ‘No, you call.’” They didn’t want to get the wrong person into trouble, he said.

Finally he approached a police car that had stopped nearby with the information.

Ultimately, as the writer Rachel Handler, who lives locally and shops at the store, put it in Curbed: “the whole thing was a moment of beautiful New York City teamwork.”

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