In a 9/11 Survival Tale, the Pieces Just Don’t Fit
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.
“At this time, we are unable to confirm the veracity of her connection to the events of Sept. 11,” said Jennifer Adams, chief executive of the September 11th Families’ Association, which developed the center.
Tania Head’s colleagues in New York, the people who worked with her to respond to the trauma of the terror attack, say that for three years she has given a gentle face and passionate voice to the survivors of the tragedy. They have seen, they said, the scars and marks on her arm that she said she suffered in the terrorist attack.
But they do not know many details about her life before September 2001.
She has told people that she is the daughter of a diplomat, and is described on the Survivors’ Network Web site as “a senior vice president for strategic alliances for an investment think tank.”
Biographical material circulated at a school where she was scheduled to speak listed her as a financial executive who had done work in the United States, the United Kingdom, Argentina, France, Singapore and Holland for leading firms. She said that she had started out as a management consultant for Andersen Consulting.
Ms. Head told Mr. Crowther’s family that she had worked on a mergers team at Merrill Lynch and that all the members of the team in the south tower had perished on 9/11, except her.
More recently, Linda Gormley, a board member of the Survivors’ Network, said that Ms. Head had told her she had been in the building applying for an internship.
Ms. Head, who sometimes uses the first name Alicia, has also said that she traveled to Thailand after the tsunami in 2004 and to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to offer her help.
As for her educational background, she has told people that she has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a graduate business degree from Stanford, though officials at both universities said they could not find records of a student by her name.
Her work with the Survivors’ Network appears to have begun in 2004, when Gerry Bogacz, one of its founders, said he learned through word of mouth that a woman named Tania Head had developed an Internet group for survivors.
“We had a long e-mail conversation over a two-month period, before we met, and shared our experiences,” Mr. Bogacz, who escaped from the north tower on 9/11, said in an interview. “The constellation of her experiencing the plane crash personally on the 78th floor and her fiancé’s being in the other tower and getting killed was just amazing.”
Recalling a Fiery Escape
Ms. Head, who lives in Midtown Manhattan, became a board member of the Survivors’ Network about a year later, according to Mr. Bogacz.
The story she shared with people was that she had been on the 96th floor of the south tower, which was occupied by the Fiduciary Trust Company International, when the north tower was hit by the first plane at 8:46 a.m. She was up there, according to her own account, as a Merrill Lynch employee helping to close a merger between Fiduciary Trust and Franklin Resources Inc.
She was on the 78th floor, waiting for an express elevator to leave the south tower, she said, when the second plane struck.
Ms. Head has described how a severely burned man on the floor handed her his wedding ring as she crawled past, a ring she returned to the man’s grieving widow months later. Ms. Head has not publicly disclosed the identity of that family.
She has spoken, though, of being rescued by Mr. Crowther, a 24-year-old equities trader and volunteer firefighter from Rockland County who is credited with saving several people in the south tower by leading them to the only stairs in either tower not severed by the planes. But Mr. Crowther, who is believed to have worn a red bandanna that day, did not escape himself. Ms. Head has said that she awoke to find Mr. Crowther extinguishing the flames on her clothes.
Five days later, she has said, she regained consciousness in a hospital and found out that Dave, her fiancé, had died in the north tower.
Ms. Head has said she established a foundation in his memory, Dave’s Children Foundation, and has served as its executive director. But there are no registration records of such a charity on file with the federal government or with New York State.
A colleague of Ms. Head’s said she had told her that she met Dave when they were fighting over a taxi, and that he gave her his business card, which she threw away in a huff. But about a month later, she has said, they ended up at the same business meeting and soon started to date.
A colleague said Ms. Head had turned up for the last three anniversaries at ground zero to place a small replica of a yellow cab and flowers there in honor of David and how they met.
Discrepancies in Details
Ms. Head has told several people that shortly before 9/11, she and Dave went to Hawaii, where they recognized their commitment to each other in a ceremony that was not legally recorded. Several people said she had told them that the official wedding was to be held in October 2001 in New York City, but that the couple had already begun to live together on the East Side with their golden retriever, Elvis.
In recent days, though, an associate of Ms. Head’s, Janice Cilento, a social worker who is on the board of the Survivors’ Network, said that Ms. Head told a different version of her life with Dave, relating now that they had only known each other for a few months and that their relationship had been kept secret from his family. Previously, Ms. Cilento said, Ms. Head had told her that she knew Dave’s family well, and that the couple had been living together for some time.
Most recently, last weekend, Ms. Cilento said, Ms. Head told her in a phone conversation that her relationship with Dave had been a fantasy.
In fact, the family and several friends of Dave, whose full name is being withheld by The Times to protect their privacy, said they had never heard of Tania Head. His mother said none of her son’s e-mail messages had indicated such a relationship. Both his parents and his roommate, with whom he lived in Manhattan, said they knew of no trip that he had taken to Hawaii.
In recent years, colleagues say, Ms. Head seemed dedicated to the cause of uniting and supporting the 9/11 survivors. She earned no money as president of the Survivors’ Network or as a volunteer tour guide at ground zero, and colleagues remember events that she sponsored at her own apartment.
“I still get moved when I think of her dignified, understated talk about an unimaginable and horrible loss,” said Rabbi Craig Miller, who arranged the program at Baruch that included Ms. Head.
Mr. Zimbler, of the Survivors’ Network, said he believed Alicia was Ms. Head’s given name.
Jefferson Crowther, Welles Crowther’s father, said in an interview that with the help of another Tribute Center tour guide, he and his wife met Ms. Head early last year. Mr. Crowther said that he arranged for them all to have dinner in a private dining room at the Princeton Club because Ms. Head had indicated she was uneasy about meeting in a very public place.
“During the dinner she said she still had her burned clothing and was going to send us a piece of it on a plaque since it was one of the last things our son had touched,” he recalled. “She explained that her clothes were on fire and that our son took a jacket and put out the flames. She told us that she said, ‘Don’t leave me,’ and he replied, ‘I won’t. Don’t worry. I’ll get you down.’”
“She seemed so heartfelt and genuine about what she said to us,” Mr. Crowther said.
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.