For weeks they were everywhere, the missing-persons posters, papering every surface, every lamppost and phone booth, the walls outside of hospitals and fire stations. The genre came into existence the night of the eleventh, inspired by rumors of thousands lying in hospital wards or wandering the streets in a daze. One in particular haunted me. I was volunteering at a soup kitchen at Bowling Green, and this poster seemed to be particularly prevalent in the vicinity; much later, I would learn that the husband of the missing woman lived a couple of blocks away. Her name was Dr. Sneha Anne Philip, and the poster that I remember had several pictures of her. To be honest, it was the pictures that snagged my attention. She looked too young and hot to be a doctor. Five-six, 115 pounds, 31 years old, her dark eyes aimed directly at the camera, simultaneously piercing and warm. The poster said she’d last been seen shopping at Century 21, the discount department store steps away from the World Trade Center, as if her last act was to seek out the perfect black dress or a pair of Gucci stilettos on the cheap, like a brunette Carrie Bradshaw.
I saw the poster every day, and I used to wonder about her life. I hadn’t actually known anyone who’d been in the Towers, so she became, for me, a kind of surrogate victim. Those first few days it was possible to imagine dazed or unconscious survivors, and as I stirred the chili and refilled the coffee urns, I sometimes fantasized that she would wander up to our little relief station, disoriented but intact. I would tell her what had happened, lift a Styrofoam cup of tea to her lips while we waited for the ambulance. But it soon became clear that there were very few survivors and very few bodies, and that many of the missing would always be missing. Later, I chose to imagine that she had not perished under the rubble of the Twin Towers but instead slipped away, taking advantage of the chaos to disappear and start a new life. One day, I would be walking along the Grand Canal in Venice or the beach in Malibu, and I would see a face that looked strangely familiar.
In the years that followed, the mystery of Dr. Sneha Anne Philip’s disappearance was never solved: She had been seen the evening of September 10, just after 6 p.m., purchasing lingerie, a dress, pantyhose, and three pairs of shoes. That morning her husband, Ron Lieberman, an emergency-room intern at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, had left their Battery Park City apartment around eleven. When he came home around midnight, it was empty. Sneha still hadn’t returned when he woke up at 6:30 the next morning. Lieberman was irritated but not particularly worried; she sometimes spent the night with her cousin or brother. He caught the subway uptown for a meeting, and when it ended, a little after nine, he heard that something had happened downtown.
When Lieberman finally made it home that night, after waiting at the hospital for wounded victims who never materialized, he found no trace of his wife, no footprints in the gray dust that covered the floor. The next day, he was already posting the flyers with his wife’s pictures. He filed two missing-persons reports and eventually hired a private investigator, Ken Gallant, whose most intriguing discovery was a videotape of a woman who resembled Sneha on the security camera of the apartment lobby, recorded just before the first plane hit the North Tower. She lingered near the elevator for a minute or two and then turned and left the building. The image was too bleached out to confirm the identity of the woman—who was not carrying shopping bags—but the sequence of events gave rise to a plausible narrative that the family seized upon: Sneha, returning home on the morning of the eleventh, heard the first plane hit and rushed to the scene to help, a doctor following her calling.
But police investigators, who’d uncovered many instances of fraud in connection with alleged victims of the attacks, suspected something darker. They discovered that Sneha’s medical internship would not be renewed in part due to “alcohol-related issues.” She had spent a night in jail after a dispute at a bar. Court papers cited “marital problems” and stated she “often stayed out all night with individuals (not known to her husband) whom she met at various bars.” She reportedly favored lesbian bars like Meow Mix, Henrietta Hudson, and Julie’s Lounge. The police also alluded to problems with depression and substance abuse. While these reports were inconclusive, they seemed to suggest that the missing woman was somehow responsible for her own fate, as if visiting lesbian bars somehow disqualified her from being a victim of the terrorist attacks, or that Sneha lived a secret, troubled life—one she might have appreciated the opportunity to escape from.
In 2003, Lieberman filed a claim with the Victim Compensation Fund, but in January 2004, the medical examiner’s office removed Sneha’s name from the list of official victims, ruling that she’d disappeared on September 10. The following year, a judge denied her husband’s petition to have her name added to the list. By then the fund had closed, but Sneha’s parents and Ron persisted in their quest to have Sneha listed as a victim of the attacks. Finally, in 2008, a Manhattan appellate court confirmed the family’s view of their daughter’s death, ruling that Sneha Anne Philip officially died on September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center.
When the 9/11 Memorial is unveiled, Philip’s name will be listed among the 2,983 victims. No material evidence of her death has been discovered over the past decade, but neither has anything surfaced to suggest she might still be alive. When I spoke to him this past month, Gallant dismissed the police department’s allegations as irrelevant to her disappearance. “Did she have some personal issues? Sure. We all do. But something would have shown up in my investigation if there was foul play.” As for the tantalizing possibility that Sneha walked away from her old life, Gallant pointed to the fact that her credit cards, passport, and driver’s license were left behind, there was no evidence of a secret life, and that the woman in the video looked very much like Sneha. “In my own mind, I was totally convinced that she perished there, helping those people.”
Jay McInerney is the author of The Good Life, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in the fall of 2001.
Philip’s family hopes to find the diamond jewelry she wore that day, which would have survived the fires that incinerated much of ground zero.