November 4, 2001
NEW YORK — This much is known: Sneha Philip, 31, is missing. She last talked to her husband and family the afternoon of Sept. 10. A few hours later, she used her credit card at a store across the street from the World Trade Center.
She hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
New York police have unofficially lumped Philip in with the more than 5,000 victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At first, her family let the world believe that she had perished with the others. Philip, a medical doctor, had rushed from her Battery Park apartment to ground zero moments after the first plane crashed into one of the twin towers, they told reporters. They lied, they said, because they wanted someone to recognize Philip’s face from a television report and bring her home.
But the truth is probably much more ordinary. Philip’s husband, Ron Lieberman, said he thinks his wife went missing before the terrorist attacks. He is convinced that her disappearance has simply been overshadowed, that police are unwilling to pursue something as pedestrian as the case of a person who went missing, coincidentally near ground zero.
For more than a month, as New York has grieved for the thousands lost, Lieberman has searched for the one he believes is still alive. It’s been a full-time job, as he’s watched hours of videotapes, handed out thousands of fliers, and spent what seems to him an eternity waiting.
“The weirdest thing is you start getting used to the nightmare,” said Lieberman, 32. “You wake up in the nightmare.”
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Sneha and I were classmates at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She graduated in 1991, I did in 1992. She was the good friend of a good friend, and I remember her as vivacious and smart, someone who drew people to her. I received the first e-mail about her disappearance on Sept. 13. Written by Ron and forwarded to me by the friend Sneha and I shared, the e-mail said she had been missing since Sept. 10. I thought it was strange, but there was so much going on in the world, I didn’t question it.
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Philip and Lieberman met while attending medical school in Chicago in 1996. She was an Indian Christian woman from New York. He was a white Jew from California. They were the perfect match, Lieberman said.
“There’s no one like Sneha,” he said, smiling. “She’s amazing and vibrant and goofy and silly and elegant. Everything I was looking for and lucky enough to find.”
After medical school, the couple moved to New York, where they settled in Battery Park City, statistically one of the safest neighborhoods in Manhattan. They married on May 15, 2000. Philip commuted to St. Vincent’s Hospital on Staten Island, where she was a resident pursuing internal medicine. Lieberman’s residency took him across town to Jacoby Hospital in the Bronx, where he works in emergency medicine. Because of their busy schedules, their wedding photographs still hadn’t been put in albums more than a year after the wedding.
“We kept meaning to do it,” Lieberman said.
There was nothing particularly unusual about Sept. 10. A man from their building came to measure their windows for screens. Philip was off work for the next two days and planned to clean the apartment and tend to her plants. Lieberman was scheduled to work the 1 to 9 p.m. shift at Jacoby. The pair went to lunch, then returned to the apartment. Lieberman left for work.
“Luckily, I forgot my keys so I had to come back in and I got to kiss her again,” Lieberman said.
It was the last time he saw her.
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A few days after I’d learned Sneha was missing, I was helping my sister write a letter. Bryan Bennett, one of her friends, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and was missing and presumed dead. To help her grieve, I told her to write about Bryan to his mother. My sister claims she’s not much of a writer, so I “interviewed” her over the telephone and put her memories into sentences and paragraphs.
After our conversation, I went to the CNN Web site to look at Bryan’s picture. I randomly clicked on letters of last names and ended up at “P.” There was Sneha, listed as one of the World Trade Center victims. The Web site said Sneha was 31 years old and that Bryan was 25, the same ages as me and my sister. That chilled me. I had to get off the Internet.
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Lieberman didn’t realize his wife was missing when he came home from work Sept. 10 about 11:30 p.m. He thought she was out, perhaps visiting her brother or cousin, both of whom lived nearby. He went to sleep.
“I expected her to crawl into bed with me,” he said.
He woke up about 6 a.m. and was surprised Philip was still not home. He was a little worried, but it wouldn’t be the first time Philip had crashed at a relative’s house, and she didn’t have to work that day. He left for a conference at his Bronx hospital at 6:30 a.m.
Two hours later, the first airplane struck the World Trade Center. Lieberman helped prepare his hospital for the rush of injured victims that never came and made repeated calls to his apartment. There was no answer. As the phone lines became jammed, he found it impossible to reach Philip’s family members or her hospital.
“I thought, ‘She’s out there helping somewhere,’ ” he said. ” ‘She’s a doctor. She’s helping.’ That’s what we do.”
With no reason to stay at his own hospital, he hopped a ride on an ambulance to Philip’s in Staten Island. She wasn’t there, and none of her colleagues had seen her. He borrowed a bicycle and began searching a city he no longer recognized.
“This area that is so beautiful now was completely gray,” he said.
Lieberman used his medical credentials to get past blockades to search triage stations. Nothing. He finally got through to Philip’s family, but no one had heard from her.
He rode to his apartment building but found the always-open glass doors on the bottom locked, and he had no key. He circled the building, calling his wife’s name. Seeing a candle in one of the upper floors, he flashed his penlight at the window, drawing the attention of a neighbor. He asked the person to bang on their apartment door to see whether Philip was inside.
No one responded to the pounding.
Lieberman didn’t know what to do, so he went to volunteer at a high school near ground zero. He stayed there for most of the night. Again, he waited for victims who never came.
His wife was always on his mind. She was fine, he told himself. There was no reason for her to be anywhere near the World Trade Center that day. She was out in the city working, or home resting. She was probably just as eager to find him as he was to find her.
“You figure she’s got to be somewhere. I just can’t find her,” he said.
Lieberman went back to his apartment the next day. Everything inside was covered with gray dust, he said. There were no footprints, nothing to suggest Philip had come home. Lieberman enlisted Philip’s family in the search and they prepared the more than 5,000 “missing” posters that still hang throughout New York. He called every number in her cellular telephone’s memory, but no one had spoken to her.
Then, Lieberman said, he went to police who, overwhelmed and understaffed because of the tragedy, tried to link Philip’s disappearance to the terrorist attacks. Lieberman argued his position. If that’s the case, he said, where was she on the 10th?”
“They said, ‘That’s between you and her,’ ” Lieberman said.
That struck Lieberman as ridiculous, so he tried to reason with the officers. If Philip was going to leave, he said, wouldn’t she have taken her passport and her driver’s license, her clothes or a suitcase? Everything had been left in their apartment.
“All they wanted to say was, ‘Doctor, don’t you think she was walking past the building and got hurt?’ ” he said.
Lieberman said he didn’t believe that, especially when his wife’s body wasn’t immediately found around the building’s periphery. As reporters from around the world flocked to New York, Lieberman tried to interest them in his wife’s story. At first, he said, the journalists jumped at the tale of the attractive young doctor who had disappeared without a trace.
Then they would learn she went missing on the 10th, and the interest was gone.
So Lieberman came up with a plan. He called Philip’s brother, John, who was helping in the search.
“I told him, ‘Don’t mention the 10th,’ ” Lieberman said.
And John Philip didn’t. In fact, he went a step further. He told a television journalist the story of his heroic sister, one that was untrue but that fed the media’s apparent need to divide the world into victims and heroes. Sneha Philip’s picture was broadcast on television, and the story of the disappearing doctor who was just trying to help tugged heartstrings already taut.
Philip’s family, including Lieberman, were simply happy someone was finally paying attention to her disappearance.
“These types of lies, white lies, they’re completely understandable,” Lieberman said.
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Two weeks after the tragedy, I found a New York newspaper story about Sneha. Her brother had lied about her rushing to ground zero, it said, to draw attention to her case. She was missing, but as of Sept. 10, and she was probably not a victim of the World Trade Center disaster. I forwarded the article to my Hopkins friends.
Ron sent me an e-mail a short time later. “I was forwarded an e-mail questioning the validity of the report that Sneha is missing. Let me make it clear that my wife IS missing and we have no clues her whereabouts,” he wrote. I felt horrible and worried that I’d upset him. I talked to my sister that night. “If it were you,” I said, “I would have said or done anything to get you on TV.”
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But the lie didn’t help find Philip. Neither did the police, Lieberman said. He and Philip’s family hired a private detective. They even talked to psychics. When one of the supernatural sources said Philip was alive but couldn’t speak, Lieberman and his friends visited every hospital and shelter in New York. They found nothing.
Lieberman began painstakingly tracing his wife’s final hours. About 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 10, she and her mother had exchanged instant messages over the computer. Philip was talking about having babies, he said.
“She told her mother I’d make a great father,” he said.
Videotapes from security cameras in the lobby of their apartment building show Philip walking out about 5:15 p.m. She wore the same brown shirt dress that buttoned down the front and brown loafers that she had worn to lunch that day.
A check of the couple’s credit cards revealed that Philip walked to the local Century 21 department store which, until the terrorist attacks, did a brisk business across the street from the World Trade Center. Philip made two purchases that evening: one at 6:05 p.m. and one at 7:18 p.m. She spent about $550 on three pairs of shoes, linens and lingerie. To Lieberman, that sounds like two large bags filled with items.
“Those bags never made it back to our apartment,” he said.
Lieberman distributed fliers with Philip’s photo to other Century 21 stores. Finally, a break, albeit a small one: The woman who had sold Philip shoes recognized her. She called Lieberman and told her story: Philip, who was one of her regular customers, had come to the shoe department that night with a friend, another Indian woman, shorter, with short hair.
Lieberman does not know who his wife’s companion was, but he hopes she’s the break he has been waiting for. Maybe Philip spent the night at the woman’s house. Maybe the woman had something to do with Philip’s disappearance. Maybe they both vanished together.
“We have to find out who that woman is,” he said.
To that end, Lieberman has watched hours of surveillance tapes from the Century 21 store, trying to spot the pair together. He hasn’t yet, but he has found video of his wife browsing in the store’s coat department. That makes sense, he said, because she wanted a new winter coat.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said, almost smiling. “She’s trying on all these different coats, long and fitting, and they look nice.”
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I made plans to spend a week in New York, combining business and pleasure, and asked Ron if he’d be willing to talk to me. He was. We met on Sunday, Oct. 14, my last day in the city. I’d seen Sneha’s picture posted all over Manhattan, and it was always jarring to see a familiar face on a flier taped to a telephone pole. Most of the fliers posted the week of Sept. 11 were gone. Sneha’s was still there.
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At first, Lieberman thought his wife had been kidnapped. But he has checked marina records to see whether someone smuggled her out of the area by boat that night and found nothing. A ransom note has never come.
The idea that Philip just walked away from their life is laughable to him. Their relationship was strong, and even if it weren’t, she wouldn’t have done this to her family intentionally, he said. More practically, she was wearing old contact lenses on Sept. 10 and had left her glasses at home. Her passport and driver’s license are still in the apartment. The credit card she was carrying hasn’t been used since the purchases at Century 21.
Then there’s the worst scenario, and as time passes it has become the strongest: that Philip is dead, killed either in the World Trade Center disaster or by some other malevolent force. To that end, Lieberman has given the police Philip’s dental records, photos and pictures of the jewelry she was wearing that day. There’s been talk of a memorial service, but it’s too soon, he said, “because there’s still hope.”
“We’re going to wait a year. It’s a different situation from the people who were known to work on the 104th floor. It’s sadly clear what happened to them. With Sneha, it’s not so clear,” he said.
After devoting more than a month to the full-time search for his wife, Lieberman recently returned to work. Friends and co-workers watch him go through the motions and tell him they’re amazed at his strength. He tells them that losing Philip, if she truly is lost, has been a horrible learning experience, but a learning experience nonetheless: Appreciate what you have while you have it.
“When people say, ‘I can’t imagine it,’ I say, ‘Try. Try to imagine it and that will enrich your life,’ ” he said.
Lieberman doesn’t plan to stay in his now-lonely apartment on Manhattan’s tip. He will move in with Philip’s family in upstate New York, he said, a one-hour commute to the Bronx from the opposite direction. It’s a smart move financially, and it will provide him with much-needed emotional support.
But there’s the fear that if he moves, Philip will come home some night and he won’t be there.
“I expect sometimes when I’m sleeping that she’s going to crawl in bed with me,” he said.