In all the stories that came out of 9/11 -- stories of love, loss and heroism -- Tania Head's tale had it all.
As president of the World Trade Center Survivors' Network and as a tour guide at ground zero, she told countless people for the past six years about being burned on the 78th floor of the south tower. Head says she was rescued by a citizen hero, and felt compelled to escape by her promise to return a wedding band to a victim's wife and by her love for a man she later learned had died in the north tower.
Tania Head's story, however, was too good to be true, as The New York Times reported Thursday.
Though she'd spoken to journalists for years and recounted her story hundreds of times among other survivors, the newspaper found that nearly every detail of Head's tale was false.
Now the many survivors of 9/11 and the families of victims who had come to trust Head, at times suppressing their own grief to help her cope with her enormous loss, are left to wonder why she would perpetrate such an enormous fabrication.
"I've heard her story over and over," said Janice Cilento, a social worker and board member of the World Trade Center Survivors' Network.
"I've been there anytime she needed someone to listen, even if it was at three in the morning. She has stolen my time and my soul," she said.
Cilento said many of the network's members "feel very upset and betrayed.
"We have members who thought Tania's trauma was so extreme they did not want to discuss their own. They gave their time to help her, and she didn't even need it," she said.
The Times reported that Merrill Lynch had confirmed that no one by the name of Tania Head had ever worked on the 78th floor of that company. The family of the victim who Head claimed was her killed fiancé, or her husband in some versions of the story, and whom the paper identified only by his first name, Dave, to protect his family's privacy, told reporters they had never heard of Head.
Head claimed she was rescued by Welles Remy Crowther, an equities trader who has been credited with saving several people on the 78th floor.
Crowther's father, Jefferson, told ABC NEWS.com he had met Head but at the time had no reason to doubt her story.
"The lady appeared to be truthful and honest. We had no reason to disbelieve what she was saying," Crowther said. "We are mystified by the inconsistencies and feel badly for the survivors, the Network where she was president and the tribute center where she was a docent."
Crowther said Head met him last year and told him "where she worked, what she did and that her husband had died in the north tower. It would have been insensitive to probe or ask more questions, and we didn't think there was reason to be suspicious."
Despite the mounting evidence against Head, Crowther said her lie "doesn't detract from what Welles did. If anything, it again brings light to the bravery and selflessness he displayed."
According to the Times, Head never attempted to receive financial remuneration for her "survivor" status.
In addition to her work with the Survivors' Network, she also volunteered as a tour guide at ground zero through the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center.
"This is a very difficult and sensitive situation for Tribute. At this time, we are unable to confirm the veracity of Tania Head's connection to the events of Sept. 11th. Criteria for docent volunteers is to be either a family member, survivor, neighborhood resident, recovery worker or an individual who was directly impacted by Sept. 11," the organization said in a statement.
In checking Head's story, the Times revealed that Head had claimed she'd graduated from Harvard and had received an MBA from Stanford, but neither school reported having a student named Tania Head.
Psychologists said there are numerous reasons that people lie, but that in Head's case she most likely enjoyed the attention she received.
"In most cases, people are very often rewarded for the lies they tell," said Robert Feldman, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert in the motivations for lying.
"This woman got a lot of attention and a lot of sympathy. Very often when people lie they embellish more and more and can't walk away from it… They back themselves into a corner and become increasingly trapped by the lie," he said.
"You have to look at the rewards people get. People are incredibly sympathetic to 9/11 victims, rape victims or those who bravely performed in otherwise tragic circumstances during a war. There is a status you otherwise wouldn't have, so by lying you make others treat you better and probably feel better about yourself."
According to Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco, Head probably got away with lying for so long because people are generally trustworthy.
"Why don't we catch liars? Because we don't want to know the truth. ... Most liars underestimate how difficult it is maintain a lie. Do all liars get caught? There is no way to know, but I've always been impressed how often liars do get caught. You need a good memory in order to be successful. You need to control your own emotions. You need to be able to take on the perspective of another person, and plan a number of steps ahead."
"'Pathological lying' is an oxymoron. Lying is not a disease; all lying is a choice," Ekman said. "Some people lie with greater frequency than others, but there is no treatment for chronic liars."
Head declined to comment to the Times about its findings. The investigation began after Head canceled interview requests for a Times story on 9/11 survivors, and became evasive about details of her own story, according to the Times.