A 9/11 Survivor — or 9/11 Impostor?

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Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT / Landov

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (C) and New York Governor George Pataki (R) thank volunteer tour guide Tania Head.

Tania Head told her story of survival again and again, quietly and memorably, so that the atrocities of 9/11 would not be forgotten. She told it to me in the summer of 2004, over coffee in Times Square. Head was on the 78th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when a plane struck the building, she said. The fire burned her terribly. She made it out, only to discover that she'd left her life behind: her fiancé was in the North Tower, she said, and he had died. She did not dwell on the graphic. She seemed, more than anything else, fragile, and nothing less than convincing.

On Thursday, however, a front-page New York Times story raised many doubts about the veracity of Head's story. Among other things, the family of her supposed fiancé does not believe the relationship ever existed, the story claims. And her supposed employer has no record of her, either, according to the Times.

Many questions remain. Was Head in the Trade Center at all that day? Was she in fact injured in the fire, and did she in fact wake up five days later in a hospital bed? Did she know the man she said she was going to marry, and did she really return a wedding ring to the widow of another man who perished after helping her escape? Where does the truth begin? Head, who did not cooperate with the Times other than to say she did nothing illegal, did not respond to my e-mail request for comment. Nor did her lawyer. But in talking with other survivors who knew her, and looking back on my own notes, I am struck by the paradox of her case. After 9/11, there were thousands of stories of suffering, each exquisitely painful. But Head's tragedy was different. It was a story of surviving one tower — only to be metaphorically crushed by another. And ironically, it may have been the unimaginable scale of her suffering that gave her the freedom to tell her story any way she wanted, without the burdens of consistency or specificity. Then again, that could all be hindsight talking.

The first and most perplexing question is why. If all or even just some of Head's story was not true, what was her motive? According to the Times' story and my own reporting, it appears Head received no financial reward from her story. In fact, she sometimes spent her own money on events for the nonprofit World Trade Center Survivors' Network, one of the largest support groups for survivors — of which she was the president until earlier this week, when the board voted her out. Sometimes other group members felt guilty because she did so much and asked for so little in return. "She's a dynamo," one survivor told me about Head back in 2004. I remember a group of survivors applauding her at a support-group meeting, so grateful for all the work she had done.

After every disaster, a small number of people pretend to be victims. Usually, they do it for money; but not always. After 9/11, the Manhattan District Attorney's office charged 539 people with offenses related to the Trade Center collapse. The charges ran the gamut from trespassing to shoplifting to breaking and entering. But a majority of the arrests were for fraud. "People who tried to get benefits they were not entitled to," explains spokesperson Barbara Thompson. "Employees who said they'd lost their jobs; they hadn't. People who said they'd lost spouses; they didn't." In all, 76% of the criminal charges resulted in convictions.

In a way, the most disturbing cases were the ones in which money played no role, in which the impersonator craved nothing so much as our compassion. Sugeil Mejia, a young mother of two, told police two days after the attacks that her husband was a Port Authority police officer — and he was trapped in the pile. He had just called on his cell phone, she said. A police officer raced her down to Ground Zero, and rescue workers put their lives at risk searching for the man in the unstable rubble. Then Mejia vanished. Four months later, she pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment in Manhattan Supreme Court and was sentenced to three years in prison.

"Why do people do this? There's an obvious benefit," says Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine who is famous for her critical work on the recovered memories of alleged sexual-abuse victims. "It may not be immediately financial. But certainly being bathed in a love bath of attention and affection is a lot of benefit for a lot of people."

We have all seen, on a much smaller, almost incomparable scale, this yearning to be part of 9/11. Don't we all have relatives or friends who insisted, for years, on telling their own somewhat-less-than-impressive 9/11 stories at dinner parties, about how they'd been in the Trade Center themselves — in 1989; or how they'd watched CNN and felt that something awful was happening and called their husbands at work — in Chicago. If we're honest, we'll admit that many of us have those stories ourselves. We cling to them, in a slightly undignified but somehow understandable wish to feel connected to the defining event of our time. To share in the plot line, just as we shared in the grief, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

In my interview with Head, she talked a lot about how the survivors of the collapse had been overlooked by the media. It was something many survivors talked about, but she was particularly focused on the unfairness. "What hasn't been acknowledged is that even if you weren't injured or didn't lose someone, you went through something people cannot understand. You saw things," she said. She also talked about how survivors could help grieving family members. She talked of meeting a woman who had lost her son on 9/11. "She didn't understand why her son hadn't evacuated," Head said. "I was close to where her son was, and I was able to run after her. I was able to tell her."

If Head's story is not true, it is a terrible betrayal of trust. It is hard to imagine a satisfying explanation. But the other nagging mystery about this story is not about Head at all. It's about me and the dozens of reporters, fellow survivors and audiences who listened to Head — and truth be told, virtually every 9/11 survivor — without the least bit of skepticism. Why didn't we sense something amiss?

I was extraordinarily cautious when I interviewed Head, I remember. People around her — other survivors and support-services providers— were very protective of her. They had warned me to be gentle with her, not to ask too much. One of them had actually asked me to leave an event when this person (mistakenly) thought I was questioning her without permission. That had never happened to me before. So when we finally sat down for our interview, I let Head talk. I didn't, to my regret, ask for specifics. I didn't want to push her to talk about things she wasn't ready to discuss. As a result, I never wrote about her extensively. But I did quote her in a TIME story about survivors three years ago. And I must admit I never once doubted the veracity of what she told me. The truth is, I have never called the alma mater of 9/11 victims to make sure they are who they say they are. There is to this day no complete public database listing the survivors, partly due to privacy concerns. For the same reason, it is not easy to confirm that a person has received medical attention at a hospital. Still, I could have been less credulous. I wanted, like most reporters interviewing victims of trauma, to get what I needed, without making things worse.

Her fellow survivors gave Head a wide berth, too. "All of us are so deferential to each other," says Peter Miller, a financial planner who was on the 65th floor of the North Tower on 9/11 and who has worked closely with Head over the years through survivor events. "We just assume we're always on the brink of getting emotional." He remembers noticing one inconsistency in Head's story: Miller was there when I met Head for coffee three years ago. During our conversation, he heard Head refer to her fiancé. Years later, while conducting tours of Ground Zero alongside Head, he heard that she had called this man her husband. "I just thought, 'That's odd.'" He asked her about it, he says. "She said, 'Oh, yeah, we did get married.'"

After that, Miller's recollection is hazy. "I may have asked, 'Well, then why did you refer to him as your fiancé?' But you don't want to press these things. I don't even remember what her response was, if I did indeed press her. I was sort of of the mind-set, 'whatever makes her feel better.' Her story was just so much more horrible than anything else."

Four days before the Times story came out, Head called Miller to tell him that the article was in the works — and that it was an invasion of privacy and untrue, Miller says. Having now read the story, he says he finds it to be fair. Beyond that, he does not know what to think. He hopes clarity will come. "Beneath everything — and above everything — there is always the truth," he says in a resigned and sad voice. "There is something such as the truth, and it will, thank God, get out."