Did doctor use cover of 9/11 to disappear?
DOCTOR Sneha Anne Philip is officially a hero.
She was in her third year of a residency at St Vincent's Hospital on Staten Island, New York, when she disappeared.
Her days were filled with tireless work, her evenings often spent drinking with assorted friends at pubs near her home, two blocks from the World Trade Center.
September 10, 2001, was a lot different though: she appeared in court that morning, lazed through the afternoon, went shopping that evening, and was never seen alive again.
Her husband, Ronald Lieberman, was not particularly concerned when he arrived home shortly after 11pm that evening to discover she wasn't home.
Sneha had a habit of crashing at either her brother or cousin's home when he was working late, and this seemed to be another of those times. He hadn't heard from her, but, considering the couple often argued over her failure to let him know when she wouldn't be returning home, he wasn't surprised.
On the morning of September 11, Lieberman had still not heard from his wife and, mildly annoyed she hadn't yet contacted him, left for a morning meeting in the Bronx. After the meeting, the chaos at the World Trade Center unfolded, and his panicked thoughts turned to his wife. He left message after message on their home machine (Sneha didn't own a mobile), then contacted various family members and friends, none of whom had heard from her.
After hitching a maddening six-hour ride downtown in an ambulance, during which they fought against scores of scared people fleeing lower Manhattan in the opposite direction, he was unable to enter their apartment. He spent the evening at a friend's, and the next morning - having still not heard from his wife - returned home to find no sign that she had been there. An undisturbed layer of dust from the Twin Towers' collapse permeated every surface. Nobody had been there since he left the previous morning. He reported her missing.
Sneha was quickly listed as one of the 9000 presumed victims of 9/11.
The day after the attacks, her brother John spoke to WABC reporters at Ground Zero and confirmed Philip's heroic actions, telling reporters she was last heard from as she was running into the World Trade Center towers to help injured victims. "I was on the phone with her, and she told me she couldn't leave because people were hurt," he said sorrowfully down the camera. "She said, 'I have to help this person,' and that's the last thing I heard from her." A selfless last act by a committed doctor.
This would have been her shining legacy had the New York Police Department not started digging into Philip's life, as part of their attempts to whittle down the 9000-strong list of presumed victims they began with. Once they began looking into the circumstances of the weeks leading up to her presumed death, a lot of things didn't add up. Philip had suffered an unhappy marriage, according to court documents, had conducted extramarital lesbian affairs, frequented dangerous night spots, and had criminal charges pending. She had also recently been fired from one job, reportedly due to alcohol and drug issues, which her family vehemently denied. She struck back against her employer with claims a co-worker sexually assaulted her. When the claims were shown to be fabricated, she refused to recant and was charged with "third-degree falsely reporting an incident". This is why she was in court the morning of September 10. At the time of her disappearance, she had been suspended from another job.
Detectives soon posited Philip was leading a double life. They suspected there was a lot more to her disappearance than met the eye.
Upon being questioned by the police, her brother quickly admitted he fabricated the tale of her dashing into the collapsing buildings, saying he wanted to attract attention to her disappearance. The police suspected Philip's brother knew more, but he wasn't talking.
The last known footage of Philip adds further complications. She was captured on the security camera of Century 21 department store near the World Trade Center at 7.11pm on September 10. In the footage, she is alone and carrying two large shopping bags, which were later confirmed to contain three pairs of shoes, bedding, a dress and $550 worth of lingerie. Complicating matters further, store clerks insist she was earlier shopping with another woman with short black hair, although this woman managed to avoid being captured on camera. Despite the large amount of media attention her disappearance attracted at the time, the woman accompanying Philip during the shopping trip never came forward. She is yet to be identified.
One other piece of security camera footage, uncovered by a private investigator hired by her husband, is more startling. The footage was captured in the lobby of the couple's apartment building moments before the first plane hit the nearby tower on the morning of September 11. It shows a woman enter the building, wait in front of the elevator for just over a minute, then exit. The footage is washed out by the sun streaming through the building's front door, but Lieberman insists the woman's silhouette, haircut and mannerisms match those of his wife. If this is the case, why didn't Philip take the elevator up to their apartment? Did she hear the plane hit the tower, and rush out to check the commotion? Did she quickly recognise the opportunity it afforded her to disappear?
The more police investigated, the most likely it seemed to them that Philip had fled. The World Trade Center tragedy was the perfect smokescreen.
Despite her family's claims to the contrary, Philip's life was troubled. That spring, she was told her contract at the hospital would not be renewed due to "alcohol-related issues". Incensed, she claimed a fellow intern had groped her inappropriately at a bar on a night out, and made a criminal complaint. The district attorney investigated her story, but ultimately poked holes in her case, charging her with making a false claim. They offered to drop the charges if she recanted, which she refused to do. Philip was arrested and spent an evening in jail.
Court documents paint a further picture of discontent, citing "marital problems" due to the fact she "often stayed out all night with individuals (not known to her husband) whom she met at various bars". These individuals were revealed to be female lovers. In a police report, her brother claimed to have walked in on her and his girlfriend having sex. Another police report claims that on the morning on September 10, during the court case, Lieberman and Philip got into a heated argument because she "was abusing drugs and alcohol and was conducting bisexual acts". Indeed, her new job at St Vincent's Medical Center saw her promptly suspended after refusing to meet with a substance abuse counsellor, a condition of her employment.
Lieberman vehemently denies all of this, clinging to the hero narrative he had constructed for his wife. The medical examiner's office disagreed and removed Sneha's name from the official list of 9/11 victims in 2004. "This particular lady was known to be missing the day before," they stated. "They had no evidence to show that she was alive on 9/11."
It was a blow for Lieberman, and one he wasn't willing to accept. He and Philip's family petitioned for years to overturn this ruling. In November 2005, a judge refused his request to have her death formally marked as September 11, 2001 - instead ruling she died on September 10, 2004. Under New York law, her death is officially listed as three years after her "unexplained absence commenced".
Despite the setbacks, her family continued to fight. Lieberman claimed the courtroom fight never occurred; her brother John claims likewise over his supposed statement about walking in on his girlfriend and sister having "sexual relations". They also disputed her same-sex dalliances.
"These allegations of her being bisexual are ridiculous," Lieberman told New York Magazine in 2006, explaining she frequented lesbian bars due to her experiences of being hit on in regular clubs. "Because we don't live a conservative lifestyle doesn't mean that anything abnormal is going on," he said.
"I'm a musician. I've been going out to bars and clubs my whole life. It doesn't mean these things are dangerous activities.
"All her parents and I really want is for her name to be on the list. End this family's suffering right now. Her mother's crying all the time. Is it going to hurt anybody to do it? But for some reason they're not going to do it."
In January 2008, Liberman finally succeeded in having the 2004 ruling overturned, and Philip's death was officially listed as "blunt force trauma" resulting from the building collapse.
"Even without direct proof irrefutably establishing that her route that morning took her past the World Trade Center at the time of the attack," Justice David Saxe ruled, "the evidence shows it to be highly probable that she died that morning, and at that site, whereas only the rankest speculation leads to any other conclusion."
After the ruling, Sneha Anne Philip was officially declared the 2751st victim of the World Trade Center attacks, her name added to the victims' memorial.
The actual truth may never be discovered - unless Sneha Anne Philip reappears as suddenly as she vanished.
- Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture, music history, true crime, true romance and where the old Australia's Wonderland rides are now. Follow him @nathanjolly