It’s five years after the horrors of 9/11, and Tania Head has become an integral part of the survivors’ community. Despite the horrific trauma that Head claims to have been through, she gives hope to others with her inspirational tale. But then journalists dig deeper into her story – and discover that not everything is as it seems.
With her arm seemingly extensively burned, Head comes across as the very epitome of a brave survivor – and audiences listen rapt when she tells her tale. Trapped in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the building below, the woman apparently somehow made a miraculous escape – though sadly her fiancé was not so lucky.
As the years pass, Head finds strength in sharing her story; she finds her way into the hearts of 9/11 survivors. But while others connect with her journey of triumph and loss, something strange is happening behind the scenes. And in time, the real Tania Head is revealed – and she is not what anyone expected.
The morning of September 11, 2001, began like any other in the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the New York City borough of Manhattan. But soon the lives of the people working there would change – or be lost – forever. At around 8:46 a.m., a hijacked American Airlines plane crashed into the upper floors of the north building, kick-starting the worst tragedy that the city has ever seen.
Then, as the people in the South Tower struggled to comprehend the situation, the unthinkable happened. At just after 9:00 a.m., a second plane crashed into their building, between the 77th and 85th floors. And later, the world would learn that the aircraft had been commandeered by terrorists – transformed into deadly weapons that would change the face of America forever.
In the resulting chaos, more than 2,500 people lost their lives. Thousands suffered injuries, too – and countless more survivors experienced unimaginable trauma. But the tragedy was about more than numbers, and in the aftermath of the attacks, many came forward with first-hand accounts of their terrifying experiences from inside the doomed towers.
Today, the accounts of survivors have become an integral part of how we remember the tragedy of 9/11. Stories like that of Brian Clark, who was at work on the 84th floor of the South Tower when the first plane hit. As a voluntary fire warden, Clark had been busy assisting his coworkers when the second aircraft crashed into the building.
As they subsequently attempted to evacuate, Clark and his coworkers talked over the best way to exit the building. And while he was attending to a man in distress, the others chose to head up to the roof – a decision that would cost them their lives. Meanwhile, Clark survived – one of only four people to escape from the building’s upper floors.
At the same time, Gerry Bogacz, a planning director with New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, was making his way through the chaos of the North Tower. Less than an hour earlier, Flight 11 had crashed into the building some ten floors above. And now Bogacz was attempting to escape the destruction.
At just before 10:00 a.m., Bogacz emerged from the blazing tower onto the street. And in the aftermath of the attacks, he became one of 9/11’s most vocal survivors. In fact, Bogacz helped found the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, or WTCSN, in 2004, bringing together those who had made it out of the disaster alive.
That same year, Bogacz also became aware of a woman named Tania Head – another survivor, she said, who was helping her fellow victims to heal. In fact, Head had established an online group that was doing work similar to that of Bogacz’s own network. So, he reached out to the woman via the internet.
“We had a long e-mail conversation over a two-month period, before we met, and shared our experiences,” Bogacz told The New York Times in 2007. And on the surface, Head’s story appeared to be one of the most chilling of them all. According to her, she had been working in the South Tower on the day of the attacks.
Allegedly, Head had been at the World Trade Center to help negotiate a deal as part of her job with the investment firm Merrill Lynch. After the North Tower was hit, however, she had apparently attempted to evacuate the offices of Fiduciary Trust Company on the 96th floor. But Head had only managed to descend 18 levels, she said, before the second plane crashed into the building.
Reportedly, Head lost consciousness in the chaos that followed, only to be awoken by a man whom she would later identify as Welles Crowther. A volunteer firefighter and equities trader, Crowther was also working in the South Tower at the time of the attacks. And today, he is considered a hero, having saved the lives of 18 people.
According to Head, her clothes had been on fire, but Crowther put out the flames. And with some assistance, she was supposedly able to make her way down the stairs to safety. Head claimed that, faced with such a difficult journey, she had drawn strength from the thought of her wedding dress. Because soon, she was apparently due to tie the knot with a man known as Big Dave.
Speaking after the event, Head recalled the scenes that she had seemingly encountered as she descended to the foot of the South Tower. She claimed that at one point a dying man had entrusted her with his wedding ring – a treasure that she was eventually able to return to his grieving wife. And as she had made her way through the flames, she said, her arm had been badly burned by the blaze.
Tragically, Crowther died while attempting to rescue even more people from the South Tower. But somehow Head survived. In fact, her account would see her become known as one of only a handful of people to escape from floors 77 and above. And yet she claimed that her relief at surviving had been short-lived.
According to Head, she soon found out that the man she was due to marry had perished in the attacks. “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,” Bogacz told The New York Times.
As Head told it, the months and years after the attacks were fraught with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – not to mention her struggle with her physical injuries. But eventually, Head said, she made it out the other side and became an important part of the survivors’ network. Then in 2005 she joined Bogacz on the board of the WTCSN.
Over the years, Head rose to prominence as one of the public faces of 9/11. And as well as giving interviews to the media about her experience, she also traveled to conferences to share her story. She was, though, never paid a penny for her work with the WTCSN. In fact, she gave funds from her own pocket to help support the network.
According to those who knew her, Head was a remarkable person. “To me, Tania was a beautiful woman,” filmmaker Angelo J. Guglielmo wrote in a 2012 article for HuffPost. “Not in the conventional sense – but in other, more vulnerable ways: her bold reproof of death, her passion about doing something vital with her survivor experience; her conviction; the message she embodied of living through the pain no matter what. Everyone fell in love with her.”
Meanwhile, many of those who saw Head speak would never forget her powerful account. “I still get moved when I think of her dignified, understated talk about an unimaginable and horrible loss,” Craig Miller, a rabbi who brought the survivor to speak at New York’s Baruch College, told The New York Times.
At Baruch, Head recounted her story as part of a 2006 memorial event. “What I witnessed there I will never forget,” she is reported to have said. “It was a lot of death and destruction, but I also saw hope.” And that same year, she met with the parents of the man whom she claimed had saved her life in the South Tower.
“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,” Jefferson Crowther told The New York Times. “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.”
Later that year, Head began working as a guide at the Tribute WTC – a museum dedicated to remembering the 9/11 attacks. In fact, she was chosen to give the first ever tour when the building opened in September 2006. And yet even though Head kept her nerve in front of the New York dignitaries in attendance, her friends claimed that the event had taken an emotional toll. “Reliving that day: it was sometimes too much for her,” Guglielmo explained.
Eventually, Head took on the role of president of the WTCSN. And over the years, her story was told and retold countless times. But then in 2007 everything changed. That year, journalists from The New York Times sought to interview the survivor as part of a piece marking the sixth anniversary of the deadly attacks.
But the journalists soon discovered that something was amiss. In fact, they were unable to verify any of Head’s claims. And although Head initially agreed to be interviewed, she pulled out of the arrangements on three separate occasions. Apparently, she was suffering from emotional issues and had concerns about her privacy.
Yet as Head remained silent, her story quickly fell apart under the scrutiny of The New York Times. For one thing, a representative from Merrill Lynch confirmed that the so-called survivor’s name did not appear on any company records. And, what’s more, journalists were unable to track down the family of the dying man whose ring she claimed to have given back.
“She never shared those details, and it was nothing we wanted to probe,” Crowther’s mother, Alison, told the newspaper. “I felt it was too private and painful for her.” Meanwhile, the family of the man whom Head claimed to have been engaged to confirmed that they did not actually know her. In fact, they said that they were unaware of any engagement between the woman and their son.
It also appeared as though Head had, over the years, told several different stories about her relationship with Dave. At one point, she explained to a coworker that she had met her future fiancé when they had both tried to claim the same taxi. And then when coincidence had apparently brought the pair back together just weeks later, it seems that they had begun a romantic relationship.
On a number of occasions, Head explained that before the attacks she and Dave had traveled to Hawaii, where they had apparently tied the knot in an unofficial ceremony. And, supposedly, the pair had planned to wed legally in October 2001. Meanwhile, according to Head, they had been happily cohabiting, along with a dog, in New York City.
However, WTCSN board member Janice Cilento claimed that Head had described her relationship with Dave in a very different way. According to this version of events, the pair had only known each other for a short while. And Head also explained that Dave’s family were being kept in the dark about the relationship – despite the fact that she had earlier claimed to know them well.
According to Cilento, Head eventually admitted to her that she had been indulging in a fantasy. Apparently, she had never been involved in a relationship with Dave – a man who really had died in the North Tower. And as journalists pushed Head for an explanation, 9/11 survivors implored her to set the record straight.
Head, however, refused to come forward with any evidence to corroborate her version of events. And at the same time, the story that she had spun so carefully continued to collapse. Indeed, even though she had claimed to have degrees from both Harvard and Stanford, journalists discovered that there were no records of her having attended either institution.
On September 27, 2007, The New York Times published an article casting doubt on Head’s tale of survival. And that same week, the WTCSN voted to terminate her position as president. Then, on October 1, the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia revealed some startling new information.
It seems that Head was actually from Barcelona, in Spain, and had been working in the city as a management secretary in the years before the attack. What’s more, she had allegedly told a colleague that her injuries were the result of a car crash. “She used to say… she had lost her arm (but that) it was recovered and sewn back on again,” an anonymous source revealed.
Ultimately, La Vanguardia discovered that Head had been enrolled in a class at Barcelona’s ESADE business school until 2002 – and hadn’t even been in New York at the time of the attacks. She had, however, told her fellow students about her desire to one day live in the city.
Now exposed as a fraud, Head disappeared from New York. And for months, the once-vocal survivor was silent. Then, in February 2008, the WTCSN received an email claiming that their former president had taken her own life. Yet around the time of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Guglielmo allegedly spotted Head in the streets of New York.
The following year, Guglielmo released a movie entitled The Woman Who Wasn’t There. Before the Head scandal broke, the filmmaker had captured her on film as part of a documentary following the efforts of the WTCSN. But eventually, his footage became part of another – far stranger – tale.
Accompanied by a book of the same name, The Woman Who Wasn’t There tells the story of Head’s rise to prominence within the WTCSN – and her ultimate fall from grace. However, the mystery of why she decided to lie about her experiences remains unsolved. “I suppose Tania had intervals of believing her magnificent story,” Guglielmo wrote in HuffPost. “But there must also have been cruel, brief interludes of clarity when she understood this was a world she had created and that – unlike her ordeal on the 78th floor – there was no savior and no way out.”