From The Blog

A Ring Of Truth

By David Mora   To get from New York City’s Hall of Records to the place where the Twin Towers once stood, you don’t need to go far:...

By David Mora


To get from New York City’s Hall of Records to the place where the Twin Towers once stood, you don’t need to go far: three blocks west, five blocks south.

If one is to search for the list of victims left by the attacks of September 11 in New York, either place will provide the information. The brass panels around the two enormous memorial pools repeat the names of the death certificates issued by the order of Renee Roth or Eve Preminger, the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court judges in those years. After the planes crashed and the towers collapsed, they declared the official death of nearly 3,000 people.

But if one is to inquire for the people who allegedly were killed on the attacks but whose names did not make it to the memorial, the Hall of Records, on 31 Chambers Street, is a more promising place. In here, using both the Supreme Court’s and Surrogates Court’s records, one can tell their stories.

Under normal circumstances, the Department of Health issues death certificates for missing people only after a court declares the person is legally dead. In the State of New York, this judgment requires three consecutive years passing in which no one has seen or heard from the absentee.

The 9/11 attacks, however, were far from normal circumstances.

The vast number of deaths, the low chances of recovering identifiable physical remains, and the large trail of grieving families in need of death certificates to move on with their lives prompted the authorities to come up with a summary process for declaring the legal death of the thousands who disappeared. It was impossible to wait three years.

Under the expedited procedure, Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Kaye designated Surrogate’s Court Judges Roth and Preminger as acting Supreme Court justices—the title was necessary as the issuance of declaratory judgments falls exclusively under Supreme Court jurisdiction. Their duty was to go through applications from the families who claimed that their loved ones were victims, and vet what the evidence they provided on their identity, their loved ones’ absence, and their connection to the World Trade Center site on the morning of September 11.

For those victims who were declared legally dead, a death certificate would be issued, and their cases would move from the Supreme Court to the Surrogate’s Court, where the matters concerning will and probate would be decided. On the other hand, the people whose deaths were not established as product of the terror attacks would leave no paper trail in the Surrogate’s Court records. Their cases would end in the Supreme Court.

Searching in the Surrogate’s Court records for documents related to 9/11 victims I came across an order by Justice Roth. Filed under index 754000/01, the document summarizes how the procedure eventually centered on two victims: WTC 2393 and WTC 2394.

The document says that between September 28, 2001 and March 19, 2003, surrogates Roth and Preminger granted over 2,400 requests within a day or two of their submission. In this first group, “the facts and circumstances of each alleged victim’s disappearance were sufficient for filing a report of death.”

A second group consisted of 50 applications that “proved to be a sham or a mistake,” as the “alleged absentees were alive or had died prior to September 22, 2001, or apparently never existed.”

A third group included only two cases. Neither victims nor shams, they caught Justice Renee Roth’s interest with particular force: Sneha Anne Philip and Fernando Jiménez Molinar, whose connection to the terror attacks and consequent disappearances “do not meet the evidentiary tests but appear to have a ring of truth.”

Sneha lived across from the World Trade Center, and as a doctor she could have had strong reasons to rush into the collapsing towers and offer help on that Tuesday morning. However, the last time she was seen was the night of September 10, and doubts around her emotional stability were raised by a NYPD investigation that found she might have been carrying a double life. These factors ultimately convinced Roth that there was only a “tenuous” relationship between her and the events of September 11.

Fernando was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to New York around 1998, when he was 16. He phoned his mother for the last time on September 8, and told her he had gotten a new delivery job at a pizzeria “very close to the towers.” He never returned from work on the Tuesday of the attacks. In her decision, Roth concludes that his whereabouts on September 11 cannot clearly be established at the site of the events, as there was no proof beyond Fernando’s mother’s affidavit.

But unlike him, Sneha would later be recognized as a victim. In 2003, her family appealed Roth’s decision and five years later an appellate court would overrule it.

For this reason, one can trace Sneha’s story both in the seventh floor of the Hall of Records, where the Supreme Court’s archives are located, and the fourth floor, where all Surrogate’s Court records get archived.

In contrast, there is nothing one can learn about Fernando in the Surrogate’s Court archives. As he never got a death certificate, he never got to be a 9/11 victim. All the records related to the aftermath of 9/11 remain sealed on the seventh floor of the Hall of Records, where all the documents produced by the New York County Supreme Court between 1998 and 2003 are kept. For public purposes, Fernando is once again undocumented.