Tania Head had one of the most tragic and inspiring stories to come out of the Sept. 11 attacks.
She was in the south tower, on the same floor that the second plane hit. She saw horrific carnage and was handed a wedding ring by a dying man who requested that she give it to his wife. Then she was led to safety by Welles Crowther, the famous "man in the red bandanna," who lost his own life rescuing others. And finally, she woke up in a hospital burn unit six days later, only to find out that her husband had been killed in the north tower.
Head became the face of the Sept. 11 survivors movement, telling her story to the media and to tour groups at ground zero. There was just one problem: Not a word of it was true.
"Her real name wasn't Tania Head at all," author and documentary filmmaker Angelo Guglielmo tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "She was actually not even in the United States on Sept. 11."
"The likelihood of her ever meeting her husband, who was a real person that had died in the towers, was a complete impossibility," he says.
Guglielmo is the co-author of a new book, The Woman Who Wasn't There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception. He became friends with the woman who called herself Tania Head after she pressed him to make a documentary about the survivors.
"The World Trade Center Survivors' Network had just gotten started, and Tania had been instrumental in moving it forward," he says.
And that was the odd thing about Head: Her amazing story was a hoax, a betrayal that caused terrible pain to the people in her life. Yet many people felt that she had actually done a great deal of good for the survivors.
"Survivors continue to say that a great deal of their healing came from Tania helping them, and from Tania helping get them recognized," says Robin Gaby Fisher, who wrote the book with Guglielmo. "They needed that validation, and no one was able to get that for them, except for Tania."
Few of the survivors were willing to question Head when the occasional inconsistency appeared in her story, like when she referred to the man who died in the north tower as her husband to some people and her fiance to others. Hadn't she been through enough?
But it was the Survivors' Network that ultimately, inadvertently, led to Head's exposure as a fraud. When The New York Times was looking for an inspiring profile to accompany its sixth anniversary coverage in 2007, several members recommended Head.
"They did their normal background checking, just normal background checking, [and] things started not to check out," Fisher says. Head claimed to have gone to Harvard and Stanford, and to have been working at the World Trade Center for Merrill Lynch. None of those institutions had any record of her.
Head's real name turned out to be Alicia Esteve Head. She came from a wealthy Spanish family, and on Sept. 11, 2001, she had been in graduate school in Barcelona.
"I went up to her apartment the day that the Times article came out. I wanted to give her another chance to tell her side of the story," Guglielmo says. "Even though we knew she wasn't the person she said she was, that didn't change our attachment to her," he says. "It took a while for that to happen."
"She obviously told me she would tell me her story one day, but not that day," he says. "And she never did." And though Guglielmo saw Head on the street last year, no one's quite sure where she's living now.
Fisher says Head never took any money from the people she was fooling. "And, in fact, she gave money to the survivors' network," she says. "It was clear to me right away that she did it for the attention. For some crazy need to be a star, and that's what she wanted to be, and she became that."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. For many people for many years, this woman was the face and the voice of the survivors of September 11.
TANIA HEAD: I was on the south tower, and I lost my fiance that day.
RAZ: Tania Head's inspiring story of courage in the face of impossible devastation captivated millions of people, and not a word of it was true. Tania Head wasn't in the United States on September 11, 2001. Her name wasn't even Tania. Our book today is "The Woman Who Wasn't There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception." Authors Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo Guglielmo join me now from our New York bureau. Welcome to both of you.
ANGELO GUGLIELMO: Thank you so much.
ROBIN GABY FISHER: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: Angelo, let me start with you, because you were actually friends with this woman who called herself Tania Head. Who was she? How did you meet her?
GUGLIELMO: Tania and I met each other while we were volunteering at Ground Zero to give tours of the tribute center. We became friendly right away. You know, she came up to me in our training session and told me her story right there. And I immediately burst into tears. And...
RAZ: What did she tell you?
HEAD: Well, she told me that she was on the 78th floor when the plane actually came towards the towers. She said she could see it so close that she could feel the air being sucked out of her lungs. She had gotten thrown across the room. She had passed out. She had seen incredible carnage surrounding her. Her arm got severed, and she miraculously made it to the doorway, and she was saved by Welles Remy Crowther. He was the man with the red bandana that was responsible for many people getting out of the towers alive. And he had died helping people escape.
GUGLIELMO: She got down to the sky lobby before the towers collapsed around her. She was thrown under a rig and woke up six days later as a John Doe in the hospital. So when you heard her story, I mean, you could just feel your heart ache.
RAZ: She said her fiance was in the other tower, and he was killed.
GUGLIELMO: Yes. She - actually, the first thing she thought about, she told me, was her husband Dave who was in the neighboring tower, and she actually counted floors from the top of the tower out the sky lobby window to see that he was the floor that had gotten hit.
RAZ: You decided shortly after you met her that you wanted to make a film?
GUGLIELMO: Yes. Well, I had made a 9/11 documentary about my volunteer experience at Ground Zero, and I wasn't really ready to make another movie again about that subject. I felt like I had said everything I had wanted to. Tania wanted me to make a film not only about her but about her work with the Survivors' Network. And there was a lot of back and forth. I didn't want to film...
RAZ: This is, we should say, an organization that she joined and became very prominent - prominent part of.
GUGLIELMO: Oh, yeah. The World Trade Center Survivors' Network had just gotten started at that point, and Tania had been instrumental in moving it forward and getting it noticed by basically everyone in the 9/11 community.
RAZ: Hey, Angelo, let me bring in your coauthor, Robin Gaby Fisher, into the conversation, because, Robin, what struck me in the book was this idea that before it all unraveled, before we discovered this is a massive hoax, a lot of people said - had said she helped them, she was really helping them, a lot of survivors and people who were traumatized by 9/11.
FISHER: Survivors continue to say that a great deal of their healing came from Tania helping them and from Tania helping get them recognized. They needed that validation. And no one was able to get that for them except for Tania.
RAZ: She said that she was working for Merrill Lynch and that's why she was at the World Trade Center. She also describes to people - and presumably to you, Angelo, as well - about how she encountered a dying man who asked her to give his ring.
GUGLIELMO: Oh, sure. She had said while she was crawling to the exit on the 78th floor and crawling over bodies - people who were burned from head to toe and people who were cut up - she came across a man who put into the palm of her hand his wedding ring and his business card and said, please get this to my wife. And it was the last moments of his life at that point, she said.
RAZ: And many people heard this story and were so taken with it, but nobody ever asked what was the name of that person.
FISHER: As everyone says, now looking back, there were so many questions they could have asked. But because of her story, even when they did have maybe little doubts, hints, they would immediately stop thinking about those things because how dare they question this woman who had been through so much. And after all, who would ever make up such a story?
RAZ: She carried out this hoax for almost six years. How did the story begin to unravel?
FISHER: The story began to unravel because The New York Times was looking for someone to profile for the sixth anniversary. And several people had told them that they should speak to Tania, because they never had. And so they began by trying to interview her, and she agreed, and then she cancelled the interviews. And they went ahead and did their normal background checking. And as they did their background checking, just - things started not to check out. And then when they called Merrill Lynch and Merrill Lynch said they had no employees by that name, the whole focus of the story, obviously, changed.
RAZ: What did they find out?
GUGLIELMO: Well, what they did find out was that her real name wasn't Tania Head at all, that she was actually not even in the United States on September 11, 2001, and that the likelihood of her ever meeting her husband, who was a real person that had died in the towers, was a complete impossibility.
RAZ: She was actually living in Spain at the time, right?
GUGLIELMO: That's correct. She was in Barcelona, Spain, in graduate school, and told no one of having been in the towers or having suffered any injuries.
RAZ: Angelo, when you saw this article in The New York Times, were you shocked, or by that point, did you already have your own suspicions?
GUGLIELMO: Well, we had known before The Times article came out, because what was going on behind the scenes was significant for all of us and eye-opening. You know, it went from, why is The Times harassing her? Why is this reporter repeatedly asking her questions around the anniversary when she doesn't want to talk to him, to why isn't she answering these questions? These - it's not like he's asking her questions that haven't been asked of her before. To, oh, oh, you know, and then all of a sudden, the truth just emerged.
RAZ: And her real - remind us what her real name was.
GUGLIELMO: It is Alicia Esteve Head.
RAZ: What happens at that point? Did she just disappear?
GUGLIELMO: I went up to her apartment the day that The Times article came out. I wanted to give her another chance to tell her side of the story. I felt like it was important for her. She, obviously, told me she would tell me her story one day but not that day, and she never did.
And you have to understand, it wasn't easy for us to shift focus. Even though we knew that she wasn't the person that she said she was, that didn't change our attachment to her. I felt bad for her. I felt - we were always trying to protect her. And here, the house of cards had already fallen, and we were still - some of us still tried to protect her.
RAZ: How do you either of you explain this? Why did she do it?
FISHER: As soon as I started talking to Angelo about this story, I thought one of the most amazing and interesting things about this story was that she never took any money. And, in fact, she gave money to the Survivors' Network. And it was clear to me right away that she did it for the attention, for some crazy need to be a star. And that's what she wanted to be, and she became that.
RAZ: That's Robin Gaby Fisher together with Angelo Guglielmo. They wrote the new book called "The Woman Who Wasn't There." It's about one of the most famous cases of identity fraud to have come out of September 11th. Angelo, Robin, thank you so much.
GUGLIELMO: Thank you so much.
FISHER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure, Guy. Thank you.
GUGLIELMO: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.