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Rediff.com  » News » Indian woman included in 9/11 honour roll, finally

Indian woman included in 9/11 honour roll, finally

August 07, 2008 20:47 IST

It is almost seven years since Dr Sneha Anne Philip failed to return to her Battery Park City apartment in the World Trade Center neighbourhood.

Three years after she went missing, the Surrogate's Court, New York County, had issued a death certificate with the date September 10, 2004.

The certificate offered no closure for the family; in fact, the reverse, as it meant that officially, Philip was deemed missing for reasons other than the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre.

Closure finally arrived on July 10, 2008, when after a long-drawn battle, Philip's name was added to the official World Trade Center toll, making her the 2,751st victim of the tragedy, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, New York. The move follows a January 2008 order of the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division.

 "They are now revising the death certificate, with 9/11/2001 as the date," says Sneha's mother Ansu Philip.

The mother misses her daughter terribly, but the latest news has brought a semblance of peace. Philip was last sighted on the evening of September 10, a day before the tragedy; the family believes that next morning, she saw the devastated towers, rushed in to help and likely perished.

Investigations alleged problems with her marriage and at work, spoke of alcohol abuse and of her frequenting gay bars, and speculated whether her lifestyle had something to do with her disappearance.

Ansu Philip says her beautiful, compassionate daughter, who had a great sense of humour, was nothing like the investigations, and the media, made her out to be. "People made up stories; there was nothing we could do to stop them," she says.

Those who knew Sneha wrote to the family and told them they did not believe what was being written about her.

The mother and daughter were very close. "We would just pick up the phone to say hi, and ended up talking for a couple of hours," she recalls.

On Friday, September 7, 2001, after work, Ansu Philip boarded a train from Poughkeepsie, New York, where she has lived since 1986, to Battery Park City, where Sneha lived with her husband, Ron Lieberman.
Sneha, 31, was in her third-year residency in internal medicine at St Vincent's Medical Center.

The mother says Sneha majored in writing, but then switched to medicine, and was planning to be an allergist. Perhaps her father Dr Philip K Philip, a radiologist, inspired her; her grandfather also came from the same profession. The family migrated to the United States from Kochi, Kerala, in 1973. 

After breakfast on September 8, the mother and daughter bid goodbye to each other. The next day, they spoke over the phone, and chatted over the Internet on Monday. Sneha was off from work and busy cleaning the apartment for her cousin's visit. She was excited about a party she attended the previous night where her husband played the guitar, Ansu says. Around 3 pm, they signed off. That was the last time the mother spoke with her.

Ansu says her son-in-law Lieberman, an emergency medicine physician who has since moved to Los Angeles, continues to keep in touch. He has visited the Philips on Sneha's birthday; they recently visited him in Los Angeles and spent three days there. "He is just as close as he was when she was around," Ansu says.

Lieberman had tried hard to have his wife's name included in the 9/11 list, Philip says. "News reports of the time said the parents are not accepting that there could be something else [that Sneha Ann may not have died in the Towers]," Ansu says. "But we looked at every possible way to find out. We wanted to find her."

Lieberman hired private investigators. In 2004, when his wife's name was removed from the victims' list, he moved the Surrogate's Court, New York County. After the death certificate was issued, he appealed to the Appellate Court. "We had to ask him to stop," Sneha's mother recalls.

For two years, the family attended the anniversary of the attacks at Ground Zero, but in 2004 Sneha's name was removed from the list of those who had died there. The chief medical examiner's office said there was no evidence that she perished at the WTC.

There was a board outside Ground Zero with all the names, and hers was among them, Ansu says. "Our relatives went there, and took pictures with it." It came as a shock when the name was subsequently struck off – and with that shock came hurt, because the move meant the authorities had deemed their daughter was not a hero but a woman with shady, possibly salacious, secrets.

When a memorial quilt was being created, her family was asked to be part of it. The Mar Thoma Doctor's Association as well as Emma Willard School, where Sneha Ann studied, created memorial funds in her name. A plaque also went up at Duchess Community College, New York, where the mother works.

But the commemorative events caused the family more pain, if anything. "You know your daughter died there, but her name is not there anywhere," she says. "It was hard. It was like — you don't belong here."

That is why having her name on that list is so important. "It's like her legacy."

Sneha Ann's room in her mother's house remains untouched. Her photographs, the paintings that she loved to create, and her medical degree have been framed and installed on the walls. Her shoes and clothes are still there. "My living room is covered with her pictures," says Ansu.

Every spring, she plants pansies in her garden because her daughter loved them. "She used to say: they all have a different expression." And every spring, nine varieties of irises bloom in the family garden because Sneha adored them. "When she graduated from the Johns Hopkins University, I took irises for her and her friends," Ansu recalls.

Monika Joshi