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?