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Last Seen On September 10th


For the Philips, the loss was almost as painful as the first. 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.

Sneha and Ron met in 1995 at Chicago Medical School. She was a pretty and gregarious Indian girl who had grown up in Albany. He was a Jewish boy from L.A. with shoulder-length hair and a goatee. She was an artist, he played guitar—they stood out among their medical-school classmates and before long started dating. Sneha was a year ahead of Ron in school, so when things got serious, she took a year off, traveling around Italy, to let him catch up.

The couple graduated in 1999 and landed internships in New York—Ron at Jacobi, Sneha at the Cabrini Medical Center in Manhattan. They found a roomy, dark one-bedroom apartment on East 19th Street and began to build a life together. They worked interns’ hours but still found time to spend with each other. They favored the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village and hole-in-the-wall sushi joints near Gramercy Park. Their life suited Sneha. She was near her brother, who lived on Greenwich Street, and only an hour-long train trip from her parents, who now lived in Dutchess County.

In May 2000, the couple got married in a Jewish-Indian celebration before 250 guests at a Dutchess County inn. At the end of the ceremony, Ron placed around Sneha’s neck a gift from her mother: a teardrop-shaped gold minnu, the traditional Indian wedding pendant. At the reception, he had the band play a jazz tune he composed for the evening titled “Wow! She’s So Great.”

Less than a year and a half later, Ron was walking the streets with photocopies of his wife’s picture. The day after the attacks, he went to the 9/11 help center at the Lexington Avenue Armory to drop off flyers. When he saw the television cameras, he thought he might be able to get Sneha’s picture out all over the country. He hoped someone would recognize her and provide clues about her disappearance. But when reporters learned that Sneha had not been heard from since the 10th, they lost interest. They wanted real 9/11 stories. Though Ron still did not believe his wife had been in the towers, he was desperate. He called Sneha’s brother and suggested he come down to talk with reporters, leaving out a few details.

John took it one step further. Although he had been fighting with Sneha and had not spoken with her in two weeks, he concocted a scenario of her final moments, live on WABC. Staring mournfully into the camera, he said, “I was on the phone with her, and she told me she couldn’t leave because people were hurt. She said, ‘I have to help this person,’ and that’s the last thing I heard from her.”

The lie worked, and WABC ran a picture of the flyer. But no leads were uncovered, no witnesses found. As time passed, John began to worry that he had led investigators down the wrong path, preventing her from being found. “Maybe if I didn’t do it . . . maybe it would have gone another way,” he told me. “It became a hero story.”

The hero story notwithstanding, the family’s initial search focused on the 10th, which at the time seemed more hopeful than the alternative. Ron, who spent much of 9/11 waiting in vain to treat the injured, knew as well as anyone that survivors were unlikely to emerge from ground zero. Whatever may have occurred on the 10th, at least Sneha might still be alive.

Ron approached the crisis methodically, like a physician. His first clue came from Sneha’s instant messages on Monday to her mother: She left the house in the late afternoon to run errands. Then Ron called American Express and learned of the Century 21 purchases. (Hoping it may yet provide a lead, Ron has kept his AmEx account open.) The downtown Century 21 had temporarily closed, so he dispatched friends to drop off flyers at its other branches. Later that week, he received a phone call from Sonia Mora, a shoe-department salesclerk who had been relocated to Brooklyn. Mora said that she recognized Sneha as a Century 21 regular. Sneha came to the store with a friend on the 10th, she recalled, describing the other woman as small, in her early thirties, dark-skinned, possibly Indian. The shoe department did not use security cameras, but—after spending three weeks alone in a windowless room at Century 21’s offices reviewing videotape—Ron discovered a coat-department video from an hour earlier that captured Sneha browsing alone. Sneha’s mystery friend—if she existed—was never found.


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