It was 8. 46 a.m at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The date was Sept 11, 2001. In the South Tower on the 96th floor , Merrill Lynch employees were passing conference papers down a long table. Tania Head, a bright, ambitious 28 year old executive, was getting ready to address her team when someone yelled that the North Tower opposite them was ablaze. As her colleagues raced to the window, Tania pulled out her mobile phone and frantically punched numbers in an effort to reach her fiancée Dave, who worked for the Deloitte & Touche accountancy firm in the North Tower.
When Dave didn’t pick up, Tania ran over to the window in time to watch a terrifying sight: people in the building opposite were jumping to their deaths to escape the flames. That’s when Tania ordered her team to evacuate. Rather than wait for a local elevator, she directed them down the stairs to the express lifts on the 78th floor, known as the Sky Lobby. But as they arrived, there was a roar of jet engines followed by an explosion of glass, and an enormous airplane was suddenly plowing across the Sky Lobby killing everyone in its path.
As Tania recalled later: “It was like a horror movie, people were mounted on each other, the smell of burnt skin and people’s insides, I was gagging.” Despite being badly burned herself, Tania stopped and promised a dying man she would take his wedding ring to his wife. Another man wearing a red bandana across his lower face, staunched her still smouldering clothes and assisted her to a staircase already filled with terrified evacuees.
Injured, Tania staggered down 50 flights, often choking from the dense smoke. As a group of firefighters rushed past, she fainted , and a firefighter turned back to assist her downstairs. At the doors leading to the South Tower, a second firefighter took over. He rushed Tania towards a nearby ambulance. Suddenly there was a massive, thunderous noise. When the firefighter saw the tower about to collapse behind them, he shoved Tania under a vehicle.
“He covered me with his body” she remembered, later . “We were engulfed and soon it was pitch black and impossible to see or breathe. We shared his mask until we were rescued. Next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”
Only 19 other employees who worked on the floors above the 78th floor, had survived. For Tania Head, months of painful skin grafts would follow, but the horrifying memories took longer to heal. Others who escaped the Twin Towers would similarly find themselves similarly troubled. Tania Head decided to reach out to them. “I’ve seen and experienced too much to go back to my old life” she explained to a reporter. I want to make a difference in the world.”
Tania Head would go on to become a hero to those in the 9/11 Survivors’ Network. She did “make a difference”. The only problem is that the account of her escape from the South Tower was a complete fabrication.” In fact, on Sept 11, 2001 Ms Head was not even in Manhattan. She was in Barcelona, Spain
In 2003 Tania arrived in New York City from Spain, and logged onto a 9/11 internet support group. She was experiencing nightmares, she wrote, as well as intrusive thoughts, panic attacks and hyper-vigilance. These symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder were familiar to the members.
The internet support group Tania Head contacted had been organized under the umbrella of the World Trade Centre United Families Group. For survivors, it had become an uncomfortable alliance. Some family members took issue with the idea of them as victims. After all, they were lucky, they had escaped with their lives! Such criticism added to the PTSD burden of ‘survivor guilt’
Nor did survivors exist on the radar for local government officials., who in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, had focused their efforts on bereaved families and first responders. The survivors had not been invited to the memorial service at Ground Zero on the second anniversary of 9/11. One survivor wrote to the Daily News that it had taken all her courage to return to Ground Zero for the first time, and then to be turned away at the barriers felt like a punishment, for ‘exiting the buildings alive.”
Though many had lost colleagues on 9/11, survivors were also not included in the private tours of Ground Zero, where family members prayed and remembered the dead. Feeling shunned by the WTC United Families Group, some individuals talked about setting up their own group.. When they eventually gathered to discuss the idea in person, Tania, a warm, energizing presence, captivated the group.
They knew her tragic story from her postings. Being a consummate storyteller, it was filled with unforgettable images, like Tania waking up badly burned in the hospital to hear the heartbreaking news that her fiance’s body had been identified, not to mention the wedding dress still hanging in the closet, or the cancelled reception for 500 at the Plaza Hotel, and their little dog Elvis,and the couple’s beach cottage at Amagansett where she could no longer bear to set foot.
Today the survivors describe a hierarchy of suffering within the group. Tania’s story put her at the top. In retrospect says Barbara Conrad, “she had all the key elements from everyone else’s story. Everyone else had one element, she had all the elements.”
Tania told them she knew how to set up an advocacy group. In October 2003, Tania Head was elected the new president of the World Trade Centre Survivors’ Network, an honorary non paid position. Tania’s first achievement was to gain the survivors access to Ground Zero. She contacted the supervisor of the building site who agreed to a private visit.
Next, Tania Head put her formidable energy to work to transform the group into a powerful presence. Over the next few years, Head not only organized a survivor speaker’s bureau, she met with publishers about compiling a book of survivor testimony. She also explored with Angelo Guglielmo junior, a film-maker the idea of a documentary about the survivors. Guglielmo recalls being captivated by Tania’s ‘goodness and warmth ’.
She brought attention to the survivors ongoing battles with PTSD . In 2004, Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley wrote about: “the nearly 20,000 New Yorkers who walked, ran and crawled through smoke, fire and body parts to escape the buildings” who psychologists say are under recognized”.
Ripley quoted Head as saying. “ People cannot understand. We saw things. We had to make life-or-death decisions. I can’t get rid of my fear it’s going to happen again.”
She became the public face of 9/11 survivors. As such, Tania Head was chosen to become one of a handful of guides leading public tours of Ground Zero, and telling their stories. Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained at the fourth 9/11 memorial service: ”The volunteers leading these tours will give the experience of visiting Ground Zero the dignity and respect that it deserves. It’s heartening to know that the story will be told with accuracy, with honesty, and with a great heart.”
On September 11, 2005, Tania, the fake survivor gave the first official tour of Ground Zero to Governor Pataki, former Mayor Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg. Afterwards the three men, moved by her heroic account, embraced and congratulated her. Cameras flashed.
Dr George K. Simon, is the international best-selling author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People.” I asked him what kind of gratification Tania Head would have received from deceiving survivors, politicians, tour groups and reporters.
“Some pathological liars lie simply for the ‘thrill of the con’,” he told me. “ It makes them feel good and powerful to dupe others. And some severely impaired characters tend to see the rest of us as inferior stooges, so pulling the wool over our eyes or getting the better of us is just another way for them to bolster their sense of superiority. Perhaps Ms. Head had multiple motives. “
In March 2007 Tania Head was invited to Washington in March 2007 to testify before a congressional committee about long term health effects from Sept 11, 2001. By then another side of her emerged. Tania’s needs now came first in the group. Once warm and friendly, Tania was often intimidating. Whenever Tania suspected an individual might not be 100% loyal or perhaps had some doubts about her story, she would spread rumours about them or force them out of the group on the grounds that they were imposters. She had a good instinct about 9/11 fakes, she said.
She seemed to like playing people against each other. Dr Simon offered this perspective. “In real estate, there are 3 things that matter: location, location, location. For disturbed characters, 3 things matter: position, position, and position. These folks spend inordinate time and energy trying to achieve and maintain a position of advantage or dominance. And anyone in the way of that simply has to be taken out. ‘Looking at her actions, this appears to have been Ms. Head’s modus operandi”.
In the end it was her own growing celebrity that would prove her undoing.
In 2007 David Dunlap, a New York Times journalist, decided to write an article commemorating the 6th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. A profile of Tania Head, the face of the 9/11 survivors, seemed timely but he hit a roadblock. Tania Head wouldn’t return his calls.
Not only that, but she hastily forbade others to talk to him. Dunlap became suspicious. He started to dig and he uncovered holes in her story. He found that Tania was never employed by Merrill Lynch, nor had she attended Harvard and Stanford universities. There was more. Tania had never worked in the South Tower. Dave’s family had never heard of Tania, and friends also insisted Dave had never been engaged.
Like all con artists, she had woven some facts in with her fiction. Yes, there was a Dave employed by Deloitte & Touche who fitted the description of her fiance; but his obituary had been published in the New York Times Portraits of Grief section, so she could have found his details there. The man with the red bandana was Welles Crowther, a 24 year old equities trader who did indeed save lives on 9/11. His body was eventually found beside the bodies of several NYC firefighters. But his story was also a matter of public record.
After a front page story in the New York Times exposed her fabricated background, and the inconsistencies in her story, the survivors felt shattered by her betrayal. But rather than apologize to the group she led, Tania Head, reacted defiantly: “ I have done nothing illegal.”
“All of the suffering Tania had caused” muses Guglielmo. “Yet not a shred of contrition.”
Dr Simon says her lack of remorse indicates she never had any empathy for the survivors in the first place.
“Real remorse is rooted in empathy, allowing a person to appreciate the injury caused another. When you have a person who harbors a sense of superiority as well as a diminished capacity for empathy, they’re capable of the most unconscionable things. And when they’re caught, they almost always seem to feel indignant as opposed to remorseful, because their inflated opinion of themselves was challenged”
“The person I saw after the story broke” says Angelo Guglielmo, “wasn’t the Tania I had known and cared for. She was harder, calculating and bitter.” .
Since she had never taken money, there appeared to be nothing for the D.A’s office to charge her with. And a few weeks later, Tania simply disappeared.
But who was the 9/11 imposter?
It turns out her real name was Alicia Esteve Head. She was the only daughter of wealthy Spanish parents. As a child she had riding and tennis lessons, and attended prestigious Opus Dei schools in Barcelona where she had learned her impeccable English. Her father and oldest brother were found guilty of embezzlement and served short prison terms.
Alicia Head was notorious for lying according to her old school friends. Whenever she was bored or frustrated she made up stories. If challenged, she would react with rage.
When the 9/11 attacks happened, she was in a classroom at Esade, a prestigious business school in Barcelona, Spain. It was only after graduating with her Masters in Business Administration that Tania Head set out for New York City in 2003 to make her mark in history..
Obviously she was a pathological liar. Does that make her a psychopath? Probably, says Dr Simon.
“ I think it would be fair to say that Ms. Head appears to fall somewhere along the continuum of character disturbance, probably toward the more severe end.
“These are the folks who see themselves as above us, despise what they see as weakness in us (usually, our conscience), and feel entitled to prey on us, manipulating us, exploiting us, and toying with us.”
Today the 9/11 survivors community are doing their best to forget Tania Head. Just before the tenth anniversary, Linda Gormley, a founding member. addressed the group online: “Yes, we were devastated by Tania’s actions. However, let’s not give her or anyone else any more power. As we look back over the past 10 years, let’s remember why we came together in the first place. We came here FOR EACH OTHER.”
In 2012 Angelo Guglielmo published a book: The Woman Who Wasn’t There (co-written with Robin Fisher). He recounts a sighting of Tania around Christmas time, 2010. As she crossed Broadway at 48th she recognized her former friend. As he got closer, her face contorted with rage. He tried to speak wit her. She yelled at him to get away, and as he did, defiantly gave him the finger. At that moment, he says, he knew the Tania he had loved never existed:
“I realized I was looking at a stranger.”