Alicia Head's elaborate lies carried her to the top of a 9/11 survivors' group, despite the fact that she was out of the country that day.
A LUSH LIFE IN SPAIN
Alicia Esteve Head, despite a life of wealth and privilege, was a misfit among her crowd, the Spanish elite. Born in 1973 and raised in Barcelona with every possible luxury from horses to yachts, her feelings of inferiority persisted throughout her youth. Alicia was the youngest and only girl in a family with five brothers. She was spoiled with extravagant gifts and the permissiveness of doting parents.
Always obese and uncomfortable in her own skin, Alicia often concocted falsehoods about handsome boyfriends and impressive accomplishments to tell her peers. When confronted with her lies, she became hostile; any friends Alicia had learned to nod and smile in response to her mythology. She worshipped the United States, to the point that a U.S. flag always hung on her bedroom wall. Perhaps Alicia fantasized that, as a Spanish outsider, she would be given the attention and love she felt worthy of in America.
Alicia’s innate sense of shame and inadequacy worsened when her father and eldest brother were convicted and jailed on embezzlement charges, causing a scandal amid the Spanish social set and destroying her parents’ marriage. Estranged then on from her father and brothers, Alicia’s friendly façade hardened. People described her as driven and often ruthless; she was not above hurting others to get ahead.
Further darkening Alicia’s outlook was a bad car accident at age 18. Her arm was severed in the crash. Family members claimed that immediately after the accident, she was found sitting near the wreckage, holding her severed limb. It was surgically reattached, but the scars were obvious.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree, Alicia took a job with a real estate development firm, where she gained a reputation as an efficient yet controlling, entitled brat who was unsatisfied with her lower-level position. Soon she left her job and enrolled in an MBA program at Esade College in Barcelona. The ambitious student sailed through courses and earned her graduate degree. By then it was 2002, and Alicia was ready. Telling her friends that her dreams were too big for Barcelona, she set out to make a new life for herself in the United States.
THE SUPPORT GROUP
After exchanging messages with the other members of the World Trade Center Survivors online forum for months, Alicia, now known as Tania, decided it was time to tell them her story. She logged in and conjured the hellish images.
“I had started my way out and was in the sky lobby of the 78th floor waiting for the elevator when the plane hit. It was so crowded… everybody was pushing, trying to get into the elevators… Shortly after that, someone yelled that there was a plane coming. We heard the roaring noise from the jet, then there was a deafening explosion and a fireball ripped through the lobby. I find it very hard to talk about what happened afterward.”
It was all Tania had the emotional energy to communicate that night. Her anxiety level had risen with each word posted. Two days later, she continued her horrific story. The blood pooled on the lobby floor. The fire and smell of burning flesh. Her decapitated secretary from Merrill Lynch. The lifeless bodies strewn about, one of whom she took items of clothing from to wrap around her burned, bleeding limbs. Gripping her arm with her other hand to keep it from falling off her body. The dying man whose limp, outstretched hand held his wedding ring for her to give to his wife. The hero with the red bandanna who extinguished her burning clothes. The fireman who carried her to safety, into the chaos and rubble of the street outside.
“I kept thinking about my life, my family, my fiancé, about our wedding. I wanted to wear that white dress and swear my love for him in front of friends and family. I wanted to have his children. He was in the other tower. I didn’t know then that he would not survive. I believe that he stopped to give me the strength to get out of there on his way to heaven… I was one of the last people out of tower 2,” Tania wrote.
Though other survivors had terrifying stories to tell about that day, Tania’s was by far the most dramatic. Her portrait of loss mixed with hope and humanity penetrated the impersonal online transmission. Every survivor who read her message was aghast. Even online, Tania was making a name for herself.
Linda Gormley (ctr) and Tania Head (r), ever anxious about being photographed by press
Linda Gormley was a blond, submissive woman with a bright smile who seemed to warm to anyone who showed her kindness and acceptance. That was what Linda was looking for when she attended, with some reticence, the 9/11 Survivors’ Network meeting. The online support group had evolved into a larger, in-person meeting, but Linda felt as if she didn’t belong. She hadn’t been in the World Trade Center that day like most of the people in attendance. Linda had witnessed the events of 9/11 from a street near the towers, and was still haunted by the grisly view from the sidewalk.
As she sat and observed the meeting, Linda quickly learned who the “star” survivor was; the woman who seemed to be in the center of everything. Her name was Tania Head. One after another, people waited on the sidelines to speak with Tania, the popular, charismatic survivor with such a compelling tale.
Armed with contact information, that night Linda emailed Tania and said that she decided not to attend any more survivor meetings. Linda hadn’t suffered like the other survivors and felt her presence wasn’t justified. Tania responded to the newcomer in kind, warmly telling her that all people affected by the incidents of 9/11 were welcome. It was the start of a close friendship, one in which the more timid Linda was happy to let boisterous and brassy Tania take control. Soon, the two women were rarely seen without the other at survivor meetings and events.
For years, Linda made every effort to be a good friend to the troubled, often moody Tania. After all, Tania had survived such terror: witnessing the death and destruction inside the tower, suffering injuries and losing her beloved fiancé Dave. One thing Linda wasn’t prepared for, however, was Tania’s new therapy, which she called “flooding.” Tania said a therapist had instructed her to record audio of herself telling her 9/11 story in graphic detail. She was then supposed to listen to the tape in the presence of a supportive friend until the story no longer frightened her.
Though Linda dreaded the exercise, she stood at Tania’s side as her tape played, time and time again. Linda became increasingly traumatized by the recording and began to have nightmares. Eventually she told Tania she couldn’t participate any longer, only to have Tania suddenly erupt into anger. She lashed out at Linda, telling her how selfish and what a disloyal friend she was. How dare Linda back out of helping her, Tania hissed, when she hadn’t suffered anywhere near what Tania had? Tania left Linda wracked with guilt for having failed her friend, as well as with sickening memories of carnage. Linda would have to try harder to support Tania, she thought. Who could blame her for the occasional outburst when she had been through so much?
Welles Crowther was Jeff and Alison Crowther’s only son. He loved and respected his parents, particularly his father, whom he idolized from an early age. When Welles was six, he watched his father’s ritual as he dressed for church. He always placed a white pocket square in his left suit pocket and wrapped a comb in a blue or red bandanna, sliding it into his right hip pocket. When his father gifted Welles with a red bandanna of his own, it became his trademark. At age 16, Welles carried the bandanna as he joined his father as a volunteer fireman. He wore the bandanna under all of his high school and college sports uniforms. After graduation from Boston College, Welles went to work for investment banking firm Sandler, O’Neill and Partners, whose offices were at the World Trade Center on the 104th floor of the south tower. Though he enjoyed his job, Welles disliked sitting at a desk all day. At age 24, he harbored dreams of becoming a New York firefighter.
On September 11, 2001 at 9:03 am, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower between the 77th and 85th floors. Eight minutes later, Welles placed a call to his mother and assured her that he was fine. Alison Crowther never saw her son alive again. Once it was confirmed that Welles was among the casualties that day, Allison was haunted with thoughts about the last minutes of her son’s life. Though she scanned news sources for clues as to Welles’ final moments, Allison faced the likelihood that she would never know. Then in May of 2002, Allison found survivor Judy Wein’s account of the tragedy in the New York Times. Wein described being saved from the south tower by a man with a red bandanna. Crowther immediately contacted Wein and was able to verify that her son had indeed saved the woman’s life. Wein wasn’t the only survivor who escaped due to Welles’ heroism. He carried another woman named Ling Young on his back and down seventeen stories to safety. Afterward, Welles disappeared up the stairwell to find others in need of help.
Welles’ body was found intact next to a group of New York City firefighters in a makeshift command center on the first floor of the south tower. They died preparing to save others when the tower collapsed.
Jeff and Allison Crowther formed friendships with Ling Young and Judy Wein; the links to their son were a great comfort. Four years later, in 2006, a friend from the WTC Tribute Center called to let them know she had learned of another woman Welles had saved. Her name was Tania. After delays in their attempts to meet her, the Crowthers learned that Tania was insistent on the meeting being private, away from the prying eyes of the press. Gracious about her request, the couple arranged to meet Tania for dinner at the Princeton Club in Manhattan.
With a mixture of profound grief and pride, the Crowthers listened to Tania’s story of Welles saving her life. Tania offered to give Jeff and Allison the burnt jacket she claimed to have kept from the day of the tragedy, explaining she was unable to throw out the garment that had been touched by the hero who saved her. The Crowthers politely declined, but were touched by the openness and generosity of the brave survivor. In a sense, their son lived on in the light of Tania’s eyes. As they parted, the couple presented Tania with a red bandana. They also invited her to the memorial concert that Allison, a violinist, organized annually in honor of their son.
Tania Head (left) relishes the attention while at Ground Zero with Linda Gormley and Elia Zedeño from the Survivors' Network
Tania’s rise in the ranks of the Survivors’ Network led to her co-chairing the organization, then hundreds of voices strong. When only one survivor was selected to lead a walking tour of Ground Zero for then Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and former Mayor Giuliani, none were surprised that it was Tania. What did surprise her friends was the reason behind Tania’s reluctance to lead the tour. While giving a speech to powerful politicians was apparently in her comfort zone, Tania was near hysterical over the fact that journalists from around the world would be present. After several threats not to lead the tour, Tania was assured by her puzzled friends that they would keep the press away from her. Eventually, Tania escaped the completed tour with compliments from Pataki and Giuliani, and without being cornered by the press. Her friends from the Survivors’ Network beamed with pride.
Tania co-chaired the Survivors’ Network with its founder, Gerry Bogacz. Yet as she had done since her youth in Barcelona, Tania schemed to turn the organization against Bogacz. Over time, she carefully manipulated the group until they had a list of grievances with Bogacz. Tania spoke with a stunned Bogacz regarding the network’s issues with him. Gerry Bogacz felt betrayed by the group, having long shared with them the personal, terrifying details of his escape from the towers, and the guilt, anxiety and sadness that followed. Under Tania’s twisted controls, Bogacz resigned from the Survivors’ Network, having had enough of their continued criticism. The group quickly eliminated the co-chair position, making Tania the president. Tania was finally in the power position she always desired.
In the summer of 2007, the imaginary towers with which Tania had built her identity began to crumble. New York Times writer David Dunlap was preparing a story to mark the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At the top of his list of sources to be interviewed was Tania Head. Yet Tania repeatedly avoided Dunlap’s attempts to contact her. Members of the Survivors’ Network couldn’t comprehend why Tania was becoming increasingly unglued at the prospect of being interviewed for the Times. She begged everyone who knew her not to talk to Dunlap. Tania even enlisted a friend to leave an angry voice mail message telling Dunlap to leave her alone.
Once it became clear that the New York Times would publish an article that questioned the veracity of Tania’s story, she asked Janice Cilento, a social worker on the board of the Survivors’ Network, to accompany her on a visit to an attorney. After two hours spent in the attorney’s waiting room, Janice was called into the meeting with Tania. A stunned Cilento listened as the attorney, in several minutes, unraveled the detailed 9/11 story that Tania had passionately told for four years. Tania had not attended Harvard Business School. She never worked for Merrill Lynch, nor had she been in the towers that day. The scars on her arm were not from burns. The elaborate fairy tales about Dave, the man she said was her fiancé, were the stuff of fantasies. The first and last name of her supposed fiancé that Tania had given friends was that of a real man who had died in the north tower, yet she had never known him. Tania had studied every element of the 9/11 tragedy so intently that she had been able to fool those who had actually emerged from the smoking wreckage, their bodies—yet never their minds—unscathed.
As the shock of the survivors Tania had deceived turned to outrage, she was ousted from her position with the Survivors’ Network and disappeared into the pulsing mass that is New York City. The survivors considered anonymous online messages chastising them for not forgiving Tania and claiming she had committed suicide to be highly suspect.
Filmmaker Angelo Guglielmo, who befriended Tania after filming her for a documentary about 9/11, is the only former friend to have seen Tania in the aftermath of her downfall. Against all odds, he spotted her twice walking New York City streets; once in 2010, during the late December holiday rush, and once again in 2011, just after the 9/11 anniversary. Both times Guglielmo approached Tania, essentially asking her “why” and “how could you?” Both times she snarled at him with rage, telling him to get away from her. During the second encounter, Guglielmo turned the lens of his camera on Tania, who looked slimmer and was wearing a black party dress. He wondered where she was going. Would she go as Tania, or someone else? He watched as Tania disappeared into the crowd, becoming another dark shadow in the wake of September 11, 2001.
Images courtesy of Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr., director of the documentary film The Woman Who Wasn’t There and co-author of the book The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr.