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Video: 9/11 survivor imposter: Why did she do it?

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updated 4/4/2012 1:45:12 PM ET 2012-04-04T17:45:12

In "The Woman Who Wasn't There," Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. tell a truly incredible tale of survival with an unthinkable twist. After sharing her own account of the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, and devoting countless hours to the betterment of the survivors' lives, Tania Head was haunted by a devastating secret. Here's an excerpt.

That summer of 2007, Tania had taken to disappearing for days and sometimes weeks at a time. She told her therapist that her flooding sessions were helping her to move on. Her progress was achieved no thanks to Linda, she said, whose own counselor had finally forbidden her to participate in any more of the flooding exercises because it had set back her own healing. After all she had done for Linda, the rejection was a real slap in the face.

After six years of feeling dead inside, Tania said, 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 for the rest of her life. It was in that light that she had begun thinking about keeping a lower profile within the Survivors’ Network, she said, and maybe even divorcing herself from the group eventually.

That was all well and good, Kedem said, but between the widespread impact of her story, and all of the good she had done for the survivors, it was unlikely that she could live anonymously again. “You are the face of 9/11, and people will always know you as that,” he said. Tania responded with a self-assured grin. “Well, believe it or not, I can change that,” she said. It was a strange response, but the therapist didn’t pursue it. In his mind, Tania could accomplish anything she wanted to, even if that meant becoming someone else.

At that point, though, she 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 the survivors a presence in the museum planned for the World Trade Center site, ensuring that their 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 was looking for a story to observe the sixth anniversary, Jennifer Adams didn’t hesitate with a suggestion. Do a story on Tania Head, she 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. Dunlap’s archive of stories related to the attack—including the one he’d written nearly two years earlier, launching the campaign to save the Survivors’ Stairway—was vast. Other media outlets had run stories on Tania, but not the Times. Indeed, its reporting had been so absolute that Dunlap and his editors wondered how they could have missed her.

Tania told the Survivors’ Network board that Adams had asked her to consider doing an interview with the Times. She remembered Dunlap’s name from the story about the Survivors’ Stairway. She said that, as she’d understood it, the piece he wanted to do for the anniversary 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. The others urged Tania to sit for the interview, and she called Adams to say that the reporter could call her.

But as had happened so often before, almost as soon as she agreed, Tania began having second thoughts. She had never wanted her work for the Survivors’ Network or the Tribute Center to be about her, she told her friends on the board. 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 at work, and she could barely choke out her words. It had been weeks since their falling-out over the flooding, and they’d had no contact since. Linda had mixed feelings about that. Some days she relished the freedom that came with the loss of such a demanding friend. Other times she missed Tania so much that not being able to talk to her hurt physically.

“What’s wrong?” Linda asked.

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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.

“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. From there, she took Tania to her apartment in Hoboken, and they sat around talking about Jay for the remainder of the day. Linda felt so guilty. How could she have abandoned Tania the way that she had? The poor woman 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.

“Of course, Tania. I’ll always be here for you. No matter what.”

Linda promised to hold down the fort while Tania attended the funeral, and she promptly sent off an email to everyone on the network’s mailing list. Under the subject line “Very Sad News,” she wrote: “I wanted to let everyone know that Tania Head’s (chair/ president of the WTC Survivors’ Network) brother Jay lost his battle to cancer last Wednesday. She is out in California with her family and I am sure would appreciate everyone’s prayers for her and her family. Godspeed—we love you, Tania!”

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Well wishes poured into the network. Tania’s survivor friends took the news hard. They hadn’t even known her brother was ill, and they couldn’t fathom why such a beautiful person had to endure so much loss. When Tania got back to New York a week later, she told Linda that her whole family had gathered for the service, and everyone took turns telling stories about Jay. People had flown in from Spain and England to pay their respects. It was a touching tribute, and she was happy to have been there, but she was glad to be back home in New York, where she could lose herself in her work.

Tania quickly immersed herself in planning for the sixth anniversary, but her friends 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 eleven 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. “Call me if you need anything at all.” At ten thirty 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, and she’d started to panic and look for the way out. 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, I need you!” she cried. “These people are so mean to me. They’re screaming at me. I need you to come right now.”

“Stay right where you are,” Linda said. “I’m on my way.”

Linda flew out of her apartment. She hailed a cab and 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, leaping out of the taxi and running to her friend. “Tania! Tania?”

Tania didn’t seem to hear. She 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, just as she had during the flooding exercises. Linda pulled a wad of tissues from her purse and mopped Tania’s forehead. She needed to get her inside, to get help. She took Tania’s 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 been through?

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. The poor woman looked desperate. Linda threw up her hands and went to her. “It’s going to be okay, Tania,” she said, speaking quietly and reassuringly. “No one can hurt you now. I’m here with you.”

“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. When would enough ever be enough for her poor, tortured friend? she wondered. How could those people have been so mean to Tania? 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?

Excerpt from THE WOMAN WHO WASN'T THERE by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angela J. Guglielmo, Jr. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angela J. Guglielmo, Jr.. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

Photos: Aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks

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  1. President George Bush visits ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001, as firefighter Bob Beckwith and other weary workers continue rescue efforts in the rubble of the World Trade Center. "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon," Bush said while standing atop a fire truck. The recovery task was particularly painful for New York's police and firefighters, who lost many of their own. (Doug Mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. From left, New York Gov. George Pataki, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tour the site of the World Trade Center disaster on Sept. 12. (Robert F. Bukaty / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. American citizen Hassan Awdah, a native of Yemen, owner of the Marathon gas station in Gary, Ind., stands behind a bulletproof glass shot several times by an assailant with high-power rifle on Sept. 12, 2001. Harassment and hate crimes plagued the Muslim community and other ethnic groups following Sept. 11. (Zbigniew Bzdak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. People gather for a candlelight vigil at Union Square in New York City, Sept. 14, 2001. Citizens across the nation remembered victims of the terrorist attacks with flowers, candles, flags flown at half-staff and moments of quiet reflection. (Evan Agostini / imagedirect) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Firefighter Tony James cries during a funeral service for New York Fire Department Chaplain Rev. Mychal Judge, Sept. 15. Judge died when he was hit by debris while giving the last rites to a fireman in the collapse of the World Trade Center. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An FBI crime scene investigator points to a fingerprint as a response team gathers evidence at a Delray Beach, Fla., condominium where terrorist suspects in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon attacks lived, Sept. 16, 2001. Federal and local law enforcement issued many search and arrest warrants around the world in the week following the 9/11 attacks. (Colin Braley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. With the U.S. preparing for a strike on Afghanistan and seeking help from other countries, neighboring Pakistan quickly became a key player in the terrorist crisis. The Pakistani government's pledge to assist the U.S. spawned angry protests in the streets of Islamabad, Karachi and elsewhere. Supporters of al-Qaida leader and Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden chanted anti-American slogans and burned the U.S. flag. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rescue workers work late Sept. 18 in Washington, D.C., sifting through piles of debris from the section of the Pentagon hit by a hijacked plane. (Manny Ceneta / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. This video image from Portland International Jetport released by the Portland, Maine, police on Sept. 19 reportedly shows suspected hijackers Mohammed Atta, right, and Abdulaziz Alomari, center, as they pass through airport security Sept. 11, at 5:45 a.m. Authorities said the two men boarded a commuter flight to Boston before connecting to American Airlines Flight 11, one of four jetliners hijacked on Sept. 11. Flight 11 was deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Miriam Horrocks, seated, with 6-year-old son Michael, is presented with the U.S. flag by a U.S. Marine Corps honor guard following a funeral Mass on Sept. 17 in Media, Pa., for her late husband. Michael Horrocks, 38, was killed when hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which he was co-piloting, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. (Tom Mihalek / AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A group of anti-war protesters hold signs and chant in New York's Times Square, Sep. 21, 2001. (Jeff Christensen / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, center, gives a thumbs-up to traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Sept. 17, 2001, before helping ring the opening bell. "God Bless America" was sung before the bell, as the stock exchange opened for the first time since the terror attacks. (Beth A. Keiser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rescue workers continue their efforts Sept. 24, 2001, at the site of the World Trade Center attack. (Ted S. Warren / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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