Inside Tania Head’s Terrible 9/11 Lie: ‘The Woman Who Wasn’t There’

A new book chronicles the (literally) unbelievable story of 9/11’s most famous ‘survivor.’ By Robin Fisher and Angelo Guglielmo.

Michael Appleton, NY Daily News / Getty Images

Tania Head surfaced after 9/11 with an astonishing tale of survival and loss. Her story of barely escaping death in the south tower, and losing her husband, Dave, in the north tower, inspired everyone who heard it. She cultivated friendships with fellow survivors and became president of the influential World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. But she had a secret that, when it was finally revealed seven years later, would stun and crush the courageous people whom she claimed to champion. In this excerpt from Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr.’s new book The Woman Who Wasn’t There, the authors chronicle the months and days before her lie unraveled.

Meltdown at the St. Regis

That summer of 2007, Tania had taken to disappearing for days and sometimes weeks at a time. She told her therapist that her counseling sessions were helping her to move on. After six years of feeling dead inside, she thought it might be time to start thinking about what she wanted for herself and not doing for everyone else. She didn’t want to be defined by September 11 anymore. It was in that light that she had begun thinking about keeping a lower profile within the Survivors’ Network and maybe even divorcing herself from the group eventually.

That was all well and good, her therapist said, but between the widespread impact of her story, and all of the good she had done for survivors, it was unlikely that she could live anonymously again.

At that point, Tania was survivor nobility. It was under her leadership that the survivors’ group had gone from virtual obscurity to a formidable advocacy organization with power and respect. In its short existence, the network had recruited over a thousand members, forged important political alliances, saved the Survivors’ Stairway from destruction, lobbied Washington for health services, and convinced the 9/11 Memorial Committee to give it a presence in the museum planned for the World Trade Center site, ensuring that the survivors’ legacy would be preserved for generations to come. As if all of that hadn’t been enough, next Tania spread her good will to the Tribute Center, where she had inspired hundreds of visitors with her story.

So when David Dunlap of The New York Times went to the Tribute Center looking for a story to observe the sixth anniversary, the people there didn’t hesitate with a suggestion. Do a story on Tania Head, they said.

No news organization covered September 11, during or since, as comprehensively or as poignantly as the Times did. The newspaper had been awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its sweeping coverage of the attack and its aftermath. Its “Portraits of Grief” series about the lives lost that day resonated with readers around the country and around the world, and the lengthy story titled “102 Minutes,” which told in superlative detail what happened inside the towers from the first plane hitting to the second tower falling, evolved into a best-selling book.

Indeed, its reporting had been so absolute that Dunlap and his editors wondered how they could have missed Tania Head.

Tania told the Survivors’ Network board that she had been asked to consider doing an interview with the Times. She said that, as she’d understood it, the piece would showcase all of the survivors. She knew a story in the Times would be good for the network. That kind of exposure would bring in more members and remind the public that the survivors were still around and struggling.

But as had happened so often before, almost as soon as she agreed to the interview, Tania began having second thoughts. Frankly, the Times frightened her a little, she said, although she wasn’t quite sure why. “What should I do?” she asked the others. But before Tania had a chance to decide, fate intervened.

One morning, as summer was winding down, Tania called Linda [survivor Linda Gormley, her best friend] at work, and she could barely choke out her words. “What’s wrong?” Linda asked.

Tania said that her brother Jay had died after a long battle with cancer. She hadn’t wanted to burden anyone with her family problems, but she couldn’t deal with another death of a loved one, and she was coming undone.

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“Please come, Linda!” she cried. “I need you.”

Linda ran from her office and grabbed a taxi downtown. Tania’s eyes were red and swollen when she answered her apartment door. She wanted to go to church, she said. Linda walked Tania to a nearby Catholic church, where the two sat together in a wooden pew and prayed the Rosary. Poor Tania. She had almost lost her life in the terrorist attack, and her husband was killed. Now she’d lost a brother too. How much could one person take? Linda wondered. “How can I help you?” she asked. “What can I do?”

“Just be my friend,” Tania said through her tears.

When Tania got back from the funeral in California, she quickly immersed herself in planning for the sixth anniversary, but Linda and the others noticed something different about her. She was irritable and ornery almost all of the time, and she seemed to be trying to distance herself from the others. As always, Linda was on the receiving end of Tania’s moods, and, as always, she tolerated the hurt that came with Tania’s razor-sharp words. She worried that, between regurgitating September 11 during her therapy sessions, and now losing her brother, Tania was headed for a nervous breakdown.

In early September, her worry turned to panic.

Shortly after returning from California, Tania had told Linda that Merrill Lynch was arranging for her to meet with the families of 11 of her coworkers who’d died in the towers. Over the years, she had been besieged with requests to meet the families, and she’d always refused. She knew what they wanted—details about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives—and she had always resolved that they didn’t really want to know what she knew. Those images had nearly destroyed her life, and she still couldn’t get through a night without closing her eyes and seeing a charred or broken body. How could sharing those terrible memories possibly help them? But for some reason—maybe it was having recently lost her brother—this year she had agreed.

Tania said that the meeting was scheduled for the first Saturday in September at the St. Regis Hotel on Park Avenue. Linda was worried about the effect it would have on her friend. “Call me if you need me,” she said. At 10:30 that morning, Linda’s phone rang. Tania was on the other end, sobbing. Coming to the St. Regis had been a mistake, she said. She had barely made it into the room at the hotel when the family members started bombarding her with questions. The atmosphere felt almost ghoulish. When she wouldn’t tell them what they wanted to know, they turned on her, yelling and screaming at her that she had no right to withhold what she knew.

Linda flew out of her apartment. She went directly to the St. Regis, where she found Tania curled in a ball on the sidewalk outside the hotel.

“Oh my God!” she cried. “Tania! Tania?”

Tania rocked back and forth, crying and shaking. “I tried to get them out,” she wailed. “I tried to save them. I tried. Really I did. I didn’t want them to die.”

Linda was terrified. Tania was having flashbacks. She pulled a wad of tissues from her purse and mopped Tania’s forehead, then took her arm and gently coaxed her to her feet. Guiding her into the hotel lobby, she put her in a chair and marched to the front desk, demanding to know where the Merrill Lynch meeting was taking place. She was going to give those people a piece of her mind. How dare they treat her friend like that? Didn’t they understand what she had endured?

The desk clerk looked baffled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Before she had time to think of a retort, Linda saw Tania beckoning her. “I want to go to Dave,” Tania said, her voice thin and wobbly.

Linda knew what that meant. During Tania’s lowest moments, she often visited the Marsh & McLennan Memorial Wall outside the company headquarters in midtown. The glass wall was etched with the names of the 295 people the company lost on September 11. Tania would go there and sit on the granite bench and be with Dave. It always seemed to comfort her.

Linda took Tania’s hand, and they walked the ten blocks to the memorial wall. They stood together in the plaza, and Tania brushed her hand over Dave’s name. Before long, her tears stopped, and she seemed to be calming down. Linda stroked her friend’s hair, knowing that Dave was bringing her peace.

“You can go home now, Linda,” Tania said slowly. “I’m going to be all right.”

Linda felt nauseous all the way home. How could those people have been so mean to Tania? she wondered. How could they have attacked her that way?

It was midafternoon when she finally got back to her apartment. Her telephone answering machine was blinking with a message. A reporter from the New York Times had called. They were doing a story on her friend, Tania Head, he said. Would she please give him a call?

Adapted from The Woman Who Wasn’t There by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. Published by Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.