9/11…Heroes and Houdinis

Those Who Run to Trouble,

and Those Who Escape

By Steve Hooley


On this 20th anniversary of 9/11/2001, let us take a few moments to pause and remember those nearly 3000 who lost their lives on that terrible day. It is appropriate to honor the first responders, 343 firefighters and paramedics, and 60 police officers, heroes who gave their lives as they rescued others. And we must not forget that more than 2000 second responders, or Ground Zero workers, died from illnesses attributed to their time at the site, working to recover and identify the remains of those lost, helping to give families closure. Heroes all.

On this Patriot Day, a National Day of Remembrance, it is appropriate to reflect on heroes.

Heroes have always pulled us together, from the time prehistoric people gathered around the campfire to hear stories of conquest and victory, to modern day gatherings in front of the wide screen TV to cheer heroes of athletic competition. Heroes inhabit our stories, keeping readers on the edge of their seats, turning page after page to see how—or if!—the heroes will escape the traps and predicaments thrown at them.

Heroes pull us together, and they pull us into stories. We need heroes, and 9/11 gave us many of them.

Here are two accounts of true heroes from Biography.com, “Real Life Heroes of September 11, 2001:

Frank De Martini, a construction manager who worked for the Port Authority, and Pablo Ortiz, a Port Authority construction instructor, were inside the North Tower when it was hit. They survived, but instead of seeking safety they began to help people trapped on the tower’s 88th and 89th floors. Along with some of their coworkers, the two are thought to have saved at least 50 lives by opening stuck elevator doors, clearing offices, directing people to exits, and otherwise providing a lifeline amid dust, flames and obstructions. They were likely trying to come to the aid of additional people when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 am.

United Airlines Flight 93 was the fourth plane hijacked that morning. Yet the plane’s departure from Newark Airport had been delayed until 8:41 am, and the terrorist hijackers didn’t seize control until around 9:30. The timing meant that when passengers and crew phoned their loved ones, they learned of the other attacks, and understood the hijackers’ intentions for their flight. At least four passengers — Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and Jeremy Glick — decided to fight back and try to keep the plane they were on from becoming another destructive missile. Burnett told his wife, a flight attendant, “I know we’re all going to die. There’s three of us who are going to do something about it. I love you, honey.”


On the other end of the spectrum, 9/11 created opportunists who took advantage of the chaos and the dust cloud of catastrophe to play out their selfish deeds.

One group we will call “disappearers,” “vanishers,” or “Houdinis,” for lack of a better word, a small group of people who took advantage of the chaos and confusion to escape the bonds of their identity, then disappear, never to be heard from again.

Here are two links to articles about three people who vanished on 9/11/2001 without any evidence that they were present at the World Trade Center on that day, a doctor, a banker, and an immigrant.

Sneha Anne Philip was a physician in trouble. She had lost a past job for tardiness and alcohol-related problems. She was about to lose her current job. She was in legal trouble for falsely accusing a coworker of attacking her. Her marriage was in disarray after repeatedly staying out all night drinking, with accusations of leaving the bars with female lovers.

The night before 9/11, Sneha had been out all night, and had not returned by the morning of 9/11. This was not unusual, and her husband was annoyed but not surprised. Surveillance video of Sneha’s apartment lobby, showed that Sneha had returned to the lobby and was waiting for the elevator, when she suddenly left the lobby at 8:43 am, three minutes before the North Tower crash

She was never seen again.

Juan Lafuente was a vice-president at Citibank, which allowed him to keep a flexible schedule. He often attended meetings related to his work without notifying his supervisor in advance. There is evidence that he planned to attend a meeting at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11, but his name was not on the pre-registered list, and the final attendee list was destroyed when the building collapsed.

Juan suffered from depression and was being treated by a psychiatrist.

Tracking Juan’s path revealed the time that he had used a Metro Card at Grand Central station, and showed that it was uncertain as to whether he would have made it to the World Trade Center before its collapse.

Juan was never seen again.

Jimenez Molinar was a 20-year-old “undocumented immigrant” from Mexico, who worked as a delivery boy for a pizzeria in New York. Jimenez called his mother on September 8th, letting her know he had found a new job at the pizzeria. The evening of 9/11, Jimenez’s mother received a phone call from one of her son’s roommates, notifying her that Jimenez had not come home. She received a similar call on 9/20. The caller refused to give her his name or address, because he, too, was an undocumented immigrant.

Police checked the government databases while volunteers surveyed the local pizzerias. Since most businesses that hired undocumented immigrants used fake papers, it is not surprising that no evidence of Jimenez was ever found, or even that he was in the country.

Jimenez was never seen or heard from again.

These disappearances could have been spontaneous decisions to disappear, or possibly the premeditation was already occurring, and these people jumped at the chance to use the situation for their purposes. And there is still the possibility that they were caught in the destruction of the World Trade Center collapse, even though their remains were never found, and there was no evidence they were there.

Our stories are filled with disappearances, but how many of them are the spontaneous type where preparation meets opportunity?

Heroes run toward trouble. Houdinis escape.

We discuss heroes all the time. Let’s discuss characters who disappear without a trace.


  1. Tell us about one of your characters who disappeared without a trace.
  2. What is your favorite movie or book with a mysterious disappearance?
  3. Have you used 9/11 as a setting for of any of your books?

39 thoughts on “9/11…Heroes and Houdinis

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks so much for an extremely pertinent post which today is more relevant than ever. We should never forget the folks who, when trouble arrives, stand up to be counted and don’t just come to someone’s aid…they run to it. And the author of your post today is one of those people.

    Thanks again, Steve, for all that you do. Hope you have a great weekend.

  2. Happy Birthday Joe! Another year older, but your charm and humor remain as youthful as ever. Wishing you health and happiness. May your birthday bring you all the joy you give to others throughout the rest of the year.

  3. Timely, Sir… and not just for the date, as I have started making notes on a new project with this “Houdini effect” (good title? Hmmm…), at or near the opening, and with the arc going from fleeing to charging…

    A co-writer and I have a song from a surviving family member’s point of view included in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum’s “artists database.”

    I will say, though, that most of the cop or fire-fighter stories or movies and such – typically set only in NYC – that reference “we all lost partners that day” seem a bit contrived, as, like many veterans, I believe they hold back their experiences for various reasons, and the characters wouldn’t just cavalierly toss that remark out with a wistful look towards south Manhattan…

    But on a positive, encouraging note – like many, the heroic among us on that Tuesday inspired and continue to inspire me to consider what I can do in the everyday for those around me, even if it’s something as mundane and un-heroic as a kind word.

    • Thanks, George. I like your last paragraph, and how the heroes of 9/11 can continue to inspire us. Let us never forget them.

      Let us know when you’ve finished your new project, The Houdini Effect. I’d like to read it.

      Have a great weekend!

  4. Thanks for remembering the heroes on this day, Steve. I will never forget Todd Beamer and the other brave passengers on United 93.

    Your question about disappearances in movies immediately had me thinking of Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects. “And like that, poof. He’s gone.”

    In the TV series Mad Men the character Dick Whitman escaped his past, during the Korean War, by switching dog tags with a dead comrade named Donald Draper.

  5. Thanks, Jim, I had lots of help on this one. Every time I read the Todd Beamer story and get to the final Tom Burnett good by, it sends chills through me and brings tears to my eyes.

    I knew we could depend on you to come up with some movies and TV series to put on our To Be Watched list. Thanks!

    Have a great weekend!

    • I was also unaware, until someone pointed me in this direction and helped me see the full spectrum of behavioral responses to 9/11.

      Thanks for stopping by, Terry. Have a great weekend!

  6. September 11, 2001 – Twenty years – How fast it’s gone by and how vivid the memories are, Steve. Thanks for your tribute to the many, many heroes. I must say I’ve never heard about the Houdinis of that day, but I did see something in the news recently that there’s still DNA work being done to identify 9/11 victims.

    You asked about fictional characters who faked their deaths. I just realized I had two of them in my first (debut) novel and they were based on real people. I’m not going to plug my book here, but this made me think… yeah, I did write those guys into the story. Enjoy your day, Steve and fellow KZers!

    • Thanks, Garry. Maybe that DNA work will reveal that some of these Houdinis were actually at the World Trade Center.

      And let me plug your book: IN THE ATTIC, #1 of a true crime series.

      Thanks for adding the info on the ongoing DNA work.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. Steve, your moving post brought a lump to my throat, esp. Tom Burnett’s call to his wife. Hard to believe it’s been 20 years. Yet the anniversary also feels like a century ago.

    Reports of people who went missing during Hurricane Irma in FL in 2017 sparked my writer’s imagination. In my thriller DEAD MAN’S BLUFF, an old friend, who’d been a surrogate father to the male lead, disappeared into the storm. He was a problem gambler with thugs on his trail. Was he murdered? A suicide? Or just gone? Themes of loyalty, friendship, and unresolved loss wind through the story.

    To Joe: A BIG HAPPY BIRTHDAY to one of TKZ’s favorite people who’s been a great friend to everyone here!

  8. Steve, thank you so much for this morning’s post, your commemoration of the heroes on 9/11.

    Watching the first two episodes of the new National Geographic documentary series yesterday, “9/11: One Day in America,” I was overcome with emotion again as the stories of the first responders and survivors of the World Trade Center were told in their own words as video of that day played. So many heroes.

    One hero among many was the chief of security for a major firm in the south tower who, along with two of his security guards, saved 2000 lives that day, directing them down to the concourse. Then, as a company employee who knew him said, “he went back up,” because, as she continued, he was the kind of person who would make sure that everyone was out before he left. He died when the south tower collapsed.

    One of my characters, Asoka Singh, a leader in a rebellious organization (branded a criminal, but who saw herself as a freedom fighter) in my Empowered series, disappeared along with her cohorts when they attempted to destroy the secret “quantum tunneling network” established by the Hero Council.

    Thanks again for your post today. Reflecting so much today on the many 9/11 heroes.

    • Thanks, Dale, for alerting us to the National Geographic documentary series. There were so many heroes like the chief of security you described. Let us remember.

      And thanks for telling us about Asoka Singh, in your Empowered series. Sounds like a very interesting story.

      Have a great weekend!

  9. The biggest impact it had one me was insight into our world.

    When I was working the UAE I showed up on site one day and was kindly greeted as a new employee. This was in 2005 and my first overseas job in Oil and Gas. The HR lead, an older Arab gentlemen, (great guy too), profusely apologized to me for five minutes on how horrible 9/11 was.

    This made me really uncomfortable but other over there shared the sentiment. I went there thinking that there might be a grudge between my race and their. What I found was a sense that so many people who were foreign to me wanted unity.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Ben. Yes, unity, that’s one of the things heroes inspire in us, and one of the reasons we start today’s post with reflecting on heroes. When it comes down to it, the great majority of us want unity.

      Have a great weekend!

  10. Thanks for this post, Steve!

    I don’t have any Houdinis in any of my WsIP or published books. Maybe I should work one in . . . however, I do have a couple of disappearing and reappearing rings.

    We watched a 9/11 special on the tube last night, and it was so moving to see those images again. I felt the hot wash of patriotism again. I also saw some images I’d never seen. I think it’s good, particularly at this time in our nation, to revisit what happened.

    We must never let it happen again.

    • Thanks, Deb. Those disappearing rings reminded me of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Sounds interesting. Let us know when the book is finished.

      It’s good to hear how many people are watching specials on 9/11. We must never forget. Thanks for your comments.

      Have a great weekend!

  11. My day was weird on 9/11. I spent the entire day on the phone chasing down a very hard to find medication for my mom at every Rite Aid in two cities, shared computer databases weren’t a thing then, and I didn’t have a clue about the Twin Towers until around 4 PM when I cut on my car radio on my way to get the prescription. The deathes really didn’t sink in, but I began to cry because I knew this was our Pearl Harbor, and the world would never be the same for anybody. Mom who remembered Pearl Harbor felt the same way. Sadly, we were both right.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Marilynn. Everyone (in our generation) can remember where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated and when they learned of the events of 9/11.

      Our history was changed forever, and we must never forget those who were taken from us, and the heroes who ran to help.

      It is a somber day, remembering what happened twenty years ago.

      I hope you can have a good weekend.

    • Thanks, Elaine. I hadn’t heard of the “Houdinis” until I asked around for ideas for today’s blog. We rightfully honor the heroes of 9/11. It’s interesting to learn about the other end of the human response spectrum.

      Have a great weekend!

  12. Thanks, Steve, for reminding us of the heroes of 9/11. The stories of the people who risked their lives to save others will resonate with us forever.

    I had not heard about the Houdinis, but the concept reminds me of the stories of Nazi war criminals who managed to flee Germany, change their identities, and get to other countries after the war. I believe Simon Wiesenthal dedicated his life after the war to tracking them down so they could be brought to justice.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kay. I hadn’t thought about the correlation with the Nazi war criminals. I don’t think anybody is trying to track down these 9/11 escape artists.

      It seems escape and disappearance is a common plot theme.

      Have a great weekend!

  13. Thanks so much for this moving post about the heroes of 9/11 and a fascinating aspect of the day I hadn’t considered. I wonder how many others fled their screwed-up lives on that day, with a perfect alibi for their disappearance? Interesting post!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jodie. And thanks for your comment. I agree. I wonder how many others, who were never reported, disappeared into the confusion and chaos on that day.

      Have a great week!

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