NEW YORK — On the night before the Sept. 11 attack, Dr. Sneha Anne Philip bought three pairs of shoes, bed linens and lingerie at a department store across the street from the World Trade Center. She was never heard from again.
Her loved ones feared she had been kidnapped or murdered by a stranger. Investigators at first thought that she may have orchestrated her disappearance to get away from a troubled marriage, fights about her suspected affairs with other women and a drinking problem that threatened her job.
But eventually her family became convinced she had gone to the trade center on Sept. 11 -- perhaps to help victims -- and had died there.
And on Thursday, more than six years after the attack, an appeals court finally agreed, asking that Philip's name be added to the official list of Sept. 11 victims.
"As a family, we were obviously hopeful that, `OK, she's still alive,' in the beginning," her brother, Ashwin Philips, said Friday. "Obviously as time goes on, you realize, `OK, this is what happened.' She lived two blocks from the World Trade Center.'"
Case shrouded in mystery
Her husband, Ron Lieberman, who had gone to court to secure a place for his wife on the Sept. 11 memorial, does not plan to sue over her death, said his lawyer, Marc Bogatin. And it is too late for him to collect anything from the federal Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund, which went out of business in 2003.
The case has been shrouded in mystery ever since the fires were raging at ground zero.
Philip's husband rushed home to their apartment that day and found no sign of her. Her body and belongings were never recovered at the trade center site, but then again, authorities have yet to find any identifiable remains from more than 1,100 people believed killed on Sept. 11. Philip also left her passport and identification at home and never used her credit cards again.
Wild theories circulated about the 31-year-old doctor's whereabouts, along with the photographs her grieving husband left on billboards across the city.
Philip, a resident physician at St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island, was born in India and had lived with her husband in New York for about a year before the attacks. Lieberman was also a doctor; the couple met at medical school in Chicago.
The last time Lieberman saw her, they fought outside a courthouse, where Philip had pleaded not guilty to filing a false complaint against a colleague, according to court papers filed in 2005. Lieberman accused his wife of bisexual acts and drug and alcohol abuse, according to a lower-court ruling that refused to rule her a Sept. 11 victim.
She didn't come home to their apartment in lower Manhattan's Battery Park City after shopping at Century 21, where a department store security camera captured the last known image of her.
At one point, a detective overseeing her case thought he saw her on a videotape from her apartment building's lobby minutes before the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. But her husband could not recognize her from the video.
Alcohol, drug link rejected
A private investigator found that she sometimes stayed out all night drinking, and was let go from a job because of alcohol problems and tardiness, according to court papers.
But in Thursday's ruling, the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division rejected a court-appointed guardian's report that Philip may have risked her life by abusing alcohol and drugs, saying the sources in the report weren't credible.
The appeals court said that while no direct evidence linked her to the trade center site, it is "highly probable" she was there.
"She wasn't kidnapped by Martians," Bogatin said. "She's not hiding. ... She never had any plans to leave."
Philip K. Philip, the doctor's father, said that Philip had recently told her mother she had wanted to visit Windows on the World, the restaurant on the top floor of the trade center.
She probably attended a party held by the city's South Asian community in a hotel next to the twin towers on Sept. 10, her brother said Friday. The twin towers would have been on her route home in the morning, and her brother said she may have died while helping wounded people.
"She wouldn't run away if the people needed help," Philips said.
'Most likely explanation'
A New York court issued a similar ruling in 2002 in the case of Juan LaFuente, a 61-year-old computer analyst who worked several blocks from the trade center. LaFuente has been added to the official victims' list and will be named on the Sept. 11 memorial.
The medical examiner's office said it would review the ruling regarding Philip before making a decision.
Philip's family attended ceremonies at ground zero over the years and buried an urn filled with trade center ashes in her memory near her parents' home.
"This is the most commonsense thing that happened to her," said her 39-year-old brother. "It's not that we have 100 percent proof. With all the information that we have, this is the most likely explanation."
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