Carmel Cato lost his son, Gavin, when the seven-year-old black boy was crushed in an auto accident involving a motorcade of a Jewish religious leader.
Norman Rosenbaum's brother, Yankel, was stabbed to death in the rioting that followed. Nearly 190 people were injured.
Two decades after the violence in Crown Heights, the two men say time hasn't healed their wounds, but they take solace in each other and in the changes in the neighborhood since the riots.
"Today is about commemorating the loss of two lives," Rosenbaum said on Friday's anniversary. "It's about remembering what racism and anti-Semitism can do to the most sophisticated, advanced democracy known to mankind."
It began August 19, 1991. A funeral procession for the death of a rabbi in the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch community drove by, racing to beat the sunset, and one car fell behind, speeding to catch up. The car jumped the curb and crushed Gavin. A Jewish ambulance arrived and, some witnesses said, tended to the driver but ignored the boy who was crushed underneath the vehicle.
Three hours later, a gang of blacks shouting, "Get the Jew!" fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student.
Days of rioting from both sides followed. Angry crowds broke windows, looted, shouted "Heil Hitler!" and burned the Israeli flag. The images reverberated around City Hall and the world.
Blacks blamed the unrest on pent-up anger over perceptions that Lubavitchers got preferential treatment from city officials. Jews said it was anti-Semitism, pure and simple.
Norman Rosenbaum and Carmel Cato prefer to say the riots were the result of angry racists taking advantage of a situation, and a failure by law enforcement to shut it down fast enough.
They say it's something that would not happen today.
"Now they would listen," Cato said of police. "They are a different bunch of people now — more aware. We all are."
The two men are mirror images: Rosenbaum, pale white, thickly bearded, loquacious, wearing a black suit with a white shirt. And Cato, black, shaven, quiet, wearing a white suit with a black shirt. They sat close together, arms touching, as they spoke, remembering their relatives.
Cato was guarded, smiling to himself as he thought about his young son.
"He was quiet, but he was always coming up out of somewhere," he said. "I wonder how he would have been, grown up."
Rosenbaum said his brother always stood up for the underdog.
"The one thing I know he'd certainly be happy about today is the Cato family and the Rosenbaum family notwithstanding the tyranny of distances, are good friends," Rosenbaum said. "And they come together, and in different ways, try to give some solace to one another."
Police chief: We should have acted more quickly
In some ways, much has changed in Crown Heights, and in the city. Crime is still higher in the precinct than other neighborhoods but is at record lows. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was a deputy commissioner at the time, was then tasked with taking over police response two days after the riots started after other tactics weren't working — and when he did, he swiftly brought order.
Kelly said in an interview with TV station New York 1 that the lessons learned helped better prepare the department for the future.
"We realize that we should have acted more quickly in the additional hours of Crown Heights," he said.
Kelly since has instituted regular "disorder" drills where officers respond to mob scenes and bring them under control. And the department's then-contentious relationship with minority communities has eased — thanks in part to increased community relations and an increasingly diverse department.
Lemrick Nelson, then 16, was arrested in the Rosenbaum slaying. He was acquitted of state murder charges but was convicted of federal civil rights charges. An appeals court later overturned the federal conviction, saying the judge had tampered with the racial makeup of the jury.
In 2003, a new jury found Nelson guilty of violating Rosenbaum's civil rights. Nelson was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was released within a year because of time he had already served. He was stabbed in the head with an ice pick in a possible road rage incident last September.
The city settled a civil suit by Jewish leaders in the area for $1.2 million.
Crown Heights is still populated largely by a mix of Caribbean immigrants and an insular Jewish community.
On Friday, people of all colors and dress milled down the stretch of Eastern Parkway that was the scene of rioting as if it was just another day.
Rosenbaum flew in from Australia despite a recent leg operation and is returning Saturday. He and Cato planned to spend the evening mourning their lost loved ones quietly and in private.
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook