I'll never forget the day I met her.
I was introduced to Tania just moments before class began. Right away, I felt a connection. She had a mesmerizing presence -- elegant and sophisticated, and she smiled warmly. I love people who smile easily.
We were in the first class of a training program for docents at The Tribute WTC Visitor Center. That day we were to work on incorporating our personal 9/11 stories into our official tours of Ground Zero.
Then, she told her story. On 9/11, this woman not only escaped the 78th floor sky lobby alive, she also lost her beloved fiancé, Dave, in the neighboring Tower. Against herculean odds, she emerged through the haze of burns, PTSD, depression, chaos and trauma. I couldn't hold back the tears.
It was this combination of mystery and amazement that drew me to her. To me, Tania was a beautiful woman. Not in the conventional sense, but in other, more valuable ways: her bold reproof of death, her passion about doing something vital with her survivor experience, her conviction, the message she embodied of living through the pain no matter what. Everyone fell in love with her.
Of course, Tania emerged as the star docent. It surprised no one when she was asked to give the Inaugural Tour at the Tribute Center's opening to Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki and "America's Mayor," Rudolph Guiliani. It was a huge event. The Center's staff asked me to stay by her side so I could keep her away from the press--she was too fragile to tell her story to anyone except the dignitaries. Tania gave a brilliant tour but suffered a full-scale panic attack immediately after. Reliving that day: sometimes it was too much for her.
As I got to know Tania, I couldn't help but notice her two-sided personality: the strong, empowered warrior and the person on the brink of despair. This was a common observation of those in her inner circle. That underneath her façade, Tania was actually in a lot of pain. Of course, how could she not be?
We became good friends and began spending time together. She asked me to direct a documentary based on the support and advocacy group she had co-founded, The World Trade Center Survivors' Network. Tania had seen my documentary about 9/11 volunteers, The Heart of Steel, and wanted me to do one about the survivors. I was already working on a comedy and told her I couldn't imagine revisiting 9/11 as a film director. Tania would not hear of it.
The more I resisted, the more she pursued. She promised me unprecedented access, help with raising a budget and an open discussion about her extraordinary ordeal (she had never done a one-on-one interview for the camera). I still wasn't interested. Eventually, Tania convinced me the same way she convinced the survivors that it was time to move forward with their lives: through the sheer power of her enthusiasm.
In the fall of 2006, Tania sat in front of my camera for the first time. I began shooting an inspirational tale of overcoming grief and learning to re-embrace life. I had no way of knowing that I was embroiled in a story involving false identity, deceit and betrayal. I was blind to the painful, bitter revelations that would end Tania's reign as the ultimate survivor and, ironically, move her circle of friends past the illusion she wove... and back to reality.
Even after I found out the truth: that Tania Head was not in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, that she was never married to a man named Dave who died that day and that she was studying in Barcelona during the time she claimed to have been in a burn unit--it still wasn't easy to pry myself from her powerful hold. I had to keep reminding myself that she was lying because, in a bizarre twist of fate, it was her deception that seemed unreal.
In hindsight, everything appears as clear as Steuben glass. I suppose Tania had intervals of believing her magnificent story. After all, this was the place she thrived; it's where she found camaraderie, hope and love. But there must also have been cruel, brief interludes of clarity when she understood this was a world she had created and that - unlike her ordeal on the 78th floor - there was no savior and no way out.
While writing the book and completing the documentary, I was torn between my anger at the wreckage she left behind and my compassion for how much she had suffered. I don't think this will ever change for me. To demonize her completely is to see the story with only one eye open.
In a strange coincidence, in a city of eight million people, I crossed paths with Alicia Esteve Head while on my way to adopt a kitten on 1st Avenue. She didn't recognize me but I had no trouble noticing her. This was just days after the 10th anniversary. She was walking around midtown sightseeing. We were writing the last chapter of the book and, from Blackberry to iPhone, my co-author, Robin Gaby Fisher, guided me through the difficult process of approaching her. Difficult, because I could only see her as Tania Head. Alicia is someone whom I never knew.
My initial resistance to telling this story drove me deeper into it. I grew to realize that the book and film are, at their core, the story of a courageous woman who became a patron saint for the suffering; who could heal the deepest wounds but also inflict them. In the end, she remained an enigma, a composite of dichotomies. Tania was a savior and an adversary, who could be inspiring and inglorious, who ended up as a friend and stranger. I suppose there's always going to be a piece of me that will feel compassion for her. After all, she was and is, no matter how far she travels from the world she left behind, a survivor.
Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. is the co-author of The Woman Who Wasn't There written with Robin Gaby Fisher [Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, $26.00] and the Producer and Director of the documentary of the same name, produced by Meredith Vieira Productions and premieres on Investigation Discovery on April 17, 2012. Visit www.thewomanwhowasntthere.com for more information.