Every death is a tragedy, especially the violent and unexpected. But the more famous an event is, the more the victim is immortalized in memorials, remembered beyond their time by strangers. For the victims of 9/11, there are memorials everywhere. There is a day of remembrance. There is even a Victim Compensation Fund, which offered an average of $1.8 million to each affected family. But to someone who disappeared or died in unrelated circumstances, they would get nothing. There’s another article, whose name and source I can’t remember, written by someone whose daughter died on September 11th in a car crash on the other side of the country, and who found their grief being overshadowed (and even deemed less important) than the more famous tragedy.
Today’s article is almost the reverse. Ron Philip last saw his wife Sneha in New York on September 10th, 2001. She left in the afternoon for some errands, and he wasn’t too worried when she didn’t come back that night; their relationship is described as being under strain, and it wasn’t unusual for her to spend the night elsewhere.
Every young person who dies becomes an angel in memory. Soon after Sneha disappeared and presumably died in September 2001, her family began the beatification process: She must have run into the burning towers to use her medical expertise to try to save lives. She must have died a hero. But something got in the way of their efforts to shape their memories, to simplify the complexities of a life. City officials believe that Sneha led a secret double life. According to court records, her struggles with her dark side had cost her a job and damaged her marriage and may have led to her death the night before the terror attacks. But as the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Sneha’s family is still trying to shape her legacy. They are still trying to prove that she died virtuously, one of the glorified 9/11 victims.
Since then, no sign of her has ever been found. Her family argues she must have been at Ground Zero where her remains would be incinerated beyond recognition. She did not work near the World Trade Center, and would otherwise have no reason to be there. But she might. There is security camera footage that possibly shows her, but it is inconclusive.
A story of a heroic death […] took root. Perhaps that was Sneha on the videotape. Perhaps she went shopping, bumped into the friend whom the salesclerk remembers, went out for drinks, and, thinking that Ron would be working late, ended up spending the night at her place. Perhaps Sneha returned home the next morning, was in the lobby when the plane struck, and, as a doctor, reflexively ran toward the towers to help. The theory had flaws—the woman on the tape, for example, was not carrying shopping bags—but it fit perfectly into the family’s idealized image of Sneha, the version of her they hoped to remember.
The article is fascinating as a glimpse into the way we remember our deceased loved ones, the emotions exaggerated to much clearer proportions by the association of 9/11. There’s the haunt of uncertainty surrounding her death, again played up more than most mysterious deaths, because so much rests on whether she was really there. And the disparity between Sneha’s earlier, reportedly troubled life, and the process of her post-death rehabilitation reminds us of the flexibility of the remembered past.
The advantage with non-fiction is that sometimes new endings are written. Two years after this article was written, an appeals court labelled her a victim of 9/11 after all. Her name is inscribed at the South Pool memorial.
Last Seen on September 10th by Mark Fass
Availability: free online, print
Word count: 5,100
First published: New York Magazine, June 26th 2006 (free to access here http://nymag.com/news/features/17336/index.html)
Where else to find it: The Best American Crime Reporting 2007, edited by Linda Fairstein, 2007, HarperCollins