In a 9/11 Survival Tale, the Pieces Just Don’t Fit
Michael Bryant/The Philadelphia Inquirer
By DAVID W. DUNLAP and SERGE F. KOVALESKI
Published: September 27, 2007http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/27/nyregion/27survivor.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin
Tania Head’s story, as shared over the years with reporters, students, friends and hundreds of visitors to ground zero, was a remarkable account of both life and death.
She had, she said, survived the terror attack on the World Trade Center despite having been badly burned when the plane crashed into the upper floors of the south tower.
Crawling through the chaos and carnage on the 78th floor that morning, she said, she encountered a dying man who handed her his inscribed wedding ring, which she later returned to his widow.
Her own life was saved, she said, by a selfless volunteer who stanched the flames on her burning clothes before she was helped down the stairs. It was a journey she said she had the strength to make because she kept thinking of a beautiful white dress she was to wear at her coming marriage ceremony to a man named Dave.
But later she would discover, she said, that Dave, her fiancé, and in some versions her husband, had perished in the north tower.
As a matter of history, Ms. Head’s account made her one of only 19 survivors who had been at or above the point of impact when the planes hit. As a matter of emotion, her story deeply moved audiences like college students to whom she spoke and visitors at ground zero, where she has long led tours for the Tribute W.T.C. Visitor Center for visitors including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Gov. George E. Pataki.
“What I witnessed there I will never forget,” she told a gathering at Baruch College at a memorial event in 2006. “It was a lot of death and destruction, but I also saw hope.”
Much of Ms. Head’s account was posted on the Web site of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, a nonprofit organization for which she served as president and as point person for corporate donations.
But no part of her story, it turns out, has been verified.
The family and friends of the man to whom she claimed to be engaged say they have never heard of Tania Head and view the relationship she describes with the man, who truly died in the north tower, as an impossibility.
A spokeswoman for Merrill Lynch & Company, where she told people she worked at the time of the terror attack, said the company had no record of employing a Tania Head.
And few people, it seems, who embraced the gripping immediacy and pain of her account ever asked the name of the man whose ring she had returned, or that of the hospital where she was treated, or the identities of the people she met with in the south tower on the morning of 9/11.
“She never shared those details, and it was nothing we wanted to probe,” said Alison Crowther, the mother of Welles Remy Crowther, a man who died on 9/11 and who is credited with rescuing a number of people from the south tower, including, by Ms. Head’s account, Ms. Head. “I felt it was too private and painful for her.”
In recent weeks, The New York Times sought to interview Ms. Head about her experiences on 9/11 because she had, in other settings, presented a poignant account of survival and loss. But she canceled three scheduled interviews, citing her privacy and emotional turmoil, and declined to provide details to corroborate her story. During a telephone conversation on Tuesday, she would not explain her reticence, saying only that she had not filed any claims with the federal Victim Compensation Fund. “I have done nothing illegal,” Ms. Head said.
She has retained a lawyer, Stephanie Furgang Adwar, to represent her. Also on Tuesday, in response to a question about the accuracy of Ms. Head’s account, Ms. Adwar said in an e-mail message, “With regard to the veracity of my client’s story, neither my client, nor I, have any comment.”
No one has suggested that Ms. Head did anything to profit financially from her position as an officer with the Survivors’ Network, the nonprofit group for which she helped to raise money. But the organizations with which she has been affiliated have also questioned her account after learning of the inquiries from The Times.
For several weeks, colleagues who said they respected the good work she had done as a fixture in the survivor community have pressed her to come forward with clarifying details. But they said that they had been unable to persuade her or, in other cases, that she made representations that contradicted previous versions she had given.A Résumé With Many Holes
The board of the Survivors’ Network voted this week to remove her as president and as a director of the group, which seeks to support those who escaped the terror that day. “Tania Head is no longer associated with the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network,” its acting president, Richard Zimbler, said yesterday.
Officials of the Tribute Center said yesterday that as it stands now, Ms. Head would no longer do volunteer work for it as a tour guide.