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Last Seen On September 10th

Ron filed two missing-persons reports, but detectives—after ruling him out as a suspect—appeared inclined to lump Sneha in with the World Trade Center victims, he says. So Ron hired a private investigator, former FBI special-operations agent Ken Gallant, who scoured Sneha’s favorite hangouts, interviewed employees at bars and hotels near Century 21, and talked to Sneha’s friends, family, and co-workers. Gallant brought photos of Sneha to ferry docks, looking for people who remembered her fleeing on the 11th or being dragged out on the 10th. He even recommended a psychic whom the family flew in from Pennsylvania.

Gallant also raised the possibility that Sneha might be alive and living a new life somewhere. He oversaw a forensic examination of Sneha’s computer, searching for evidence of a secret lover, an upcoming tryst. But he found nothing, and the fact that Sneha left behind her glasses, passport, driver’s license, and credit cards (with the exception of Ron’s AmEx) seemingly ruled out the theory that she intentionally disappeared.

The search did unearth a few clues about Sneha’s final hours. Although Ron was the only one home on the night of the 10th, someone made a call from their home phone to his cell at about 4 A.M. Tuesday, he discovered. He doesn’t remember making the call but figures he may have sleepily checked his messages. Because Ron found neither footprints in the dust nor the Century 21 bags, he knows Sneha never came back to their apartment after the terror attacks. But the most tantalizing clue came from the apartment building’s security camera: a videotape of a woman who resembled Sneha in the lobby just before the first plane struck the Trade Center. Because of the angle of the sun, the image is too bleached out for Ron to be sure. But on the tape, a woman who in silhouette looks very much like Sneha—a similar haircut, similar mannerisms, wearing a dress like the one Sneha wore the afternoon before—enters the building. She stands near the elevator, waits a minute or two, then turns around and leaves.

Faced with this dearth of meaningful leads, Ron and the Philips began to reevaluate their hypothesis that whatever happened to Sneha happened on the 10th. “These kinds of crimes don’t happen in lower Manhattan, that somebody goes missing from a homicide, and they don’t find the body,” Ron says. “Killers are usually stupid, they leave clues. A body will come up. Sneha just vanished. Vanished, vanished, vanished, with no trace. The only thing that makes sense is that she burned in the World Trade Center.”

A story of a heroic death—a story very much like the one John made up for the television cameras—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.

This account of Sneha’s death also gained the Philips entry into the special community of grief surrounding 9/11. They no longer had to suffer alone. On the first anniversary of the attacks, Sneha’s parents went with their two sons and Ron to a memorial in Poughkeepsie, where Sneha’s name was read aloud as part of a tribute to local victims. Three days later, the Philips held a small ceremony at the Church of the Resurrection, near their home in Dutchess County, where they buried an urn filled with ashes from ground zero. A few months after that, a plaque went up in a grove at Dutchess Community College, where Sneha’s mother, Ansu, works as a computer programmer, that reads DR. SNEHA ANNE PHILIP, OCTOBER 07, 1969–SEPTEMBER, 11, 2001. By 2003, attending memorials had become a routine for the family, an opportunity to discuss their loss with others whose loved ones were heroes and martyrs. That October—intent on creating a memorial fund, he says—Ron filed a claim with the Victim Compensation Fund.

But as the Philips were coming to the conclusion that Sneha died in the Trade Center, another investigation was going on. Although the police had initially considered Sneha a 9/11 victim, they later uncovered a very different version of her life—one that makes her family very uncomfortable.

Police reports and court records describe a life that was reeling out of control in the months leading up to Sneha’s disappearance. Citing tardiness and “alcohol-related issues,” Cabrini’s director of residents had informed Sneha in the spring of 2001 that her contract would not be renewed—for interns, the equivalent of being fired. Shortly thereafter, Sneha got into a dispute at a bar that landed her in jail for a night. She claimed that on an evening out with co-workers, a fellow intern grabbed her inappropriately. She filed a criminal complaint, but after conducting an investigation, the Manhattan D.A.’s office dropped the charges against the alleged groper and instead charged Sneha with filing a false complaint. The prosecutors offered to drop the charge if Sneha recanted, but she refused. She was arrested and spent a night behind bars, where she meditated with a cellmate.