For six years, Tania Head symbolised the courage and determination of 9/11 survivors.
She told a dramatic story of how she was set ablaze when a plane smashed into the 78th floor of the World Trade Centre south tower as she waited for a business meeting.
It made her one of the chosen few, the 19 survivors who were at or above the floors where the planes hit. Another 2,974 people died as the towers collapsed – including her fiance.
9/11 'survivor' Tanya Head meets then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the attacks on the World Trade Centre
Her account reduced many people to tears and inspired thousands more. At a memorial service last year she said: "What I witnessed there I will never forget. It was a lot of death and destruction, but I also saw hope."
Miss Head, 35, became president and a leading fundraiser of the World Trade Centre Survivors' Network, a charity set up to help victims, families and friends traumatised by the attacks. She gave guided tours of Ground Zero, vividly recounting her experiences.
But yesterday she was exposed as a fake.
The New York Times began to probe her background after she ducked out of three interviews to commemorate the sixth anniversary this month. Reporters who talked to people she had mentioned found none of them knew much about her.
As officials try to discover if she was actually anywhere near the World Trade Centre, even her name is now in doubt.
Until questions were asked, Miss Head had made a name for herself as a remarkable survivor. She had emotional meetings with senior politicians such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, current mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former state governor George Pataki.
Tour groups hung on every word of her accounts of the plane's impact and what followed. "The first thing you feel is a tremendous increase in pressure, all the air being sucked out of your lungs," she said recently.
"The next thing you feel is flying through the air."
Smoke rages from one of the World Trade Centre's towers after the 9/11 attack
As she crawled through the chaos and carnage, she said, she encountered a dying man who handed her his inscribed wedding ring, which she later returned to his widow.
Her life was saved by Welles Crowther, a hero who used his jacket to smother her blazing clothes – and later died rescuing others.
She said she had the strength to make it down the stairs to safety because she kept thinking of the beautiful white dress she was to wear at her wedding to her fiance David.
But as she recovered in hospital she learned that David, a financier, had died in the north tower. They had just started living together after a Hawaiian holiday, she told people.
For years, no one questioned Miss Head's story. Welles Crowther's mother Alison, who met her several times, said: "I felt it was too private and painful to her to ask questions."
In fact, as reporters established, David never had a fiancÈe and never went to Hawaii, said his family and his flatmate.
Bankers Merrill Lynch, for whom Miss Head claimed to have worked, say they have never heard of her.
There is no suggestion Miss Head profited financially from her story. But the Survivors' Network has voted to remove her as president and she has been sacked as a tour guide.
There was no reply last night at her home in Manhattan, but she has insisted she has done nothing illegal and never claimed government compensation.
wth… that's just weird. like, why?
what would possibly convince someone that it would be a good idea to pretend to survive one of the most horrific terrorism attacks in history?
I mean, it's cruel and false and mean and all that too.
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