December 13, 2004 08:00 AM

In the Sunday night season finale of Survivor: Vanuatu – Islands of Fire, Chris Daugherty, 33, trounced fellow highway worker Twila Tanner, 41, to capture the 5-2 vote that earned him $1 million and a new car.

Daugherty, who works for the Ohio Department of Transportation, is the popular CBS reality series’ ninth champ. “Can you believe it?” he repeatedly blurted out while talking to the Associated Press after his victory.

His was not an auspicious beginning. Daugherty’s inability to cross a balance beam during an early immunity challenge forced his all-male tribe to be the first to vote out one of their own. But 39 days and an all-female alliance later, fate gave him a hand.

He said of the women’s coalition: “They were the creators of their own demise. … When it got down to me and six women, I stepped back and watched them tear themselves apart.”

As usual, simmering emotions rose to the surface during the final tribal council, as tearful players revealed the treacheries – petty and otherwise – that are the game’s hallmark. Julie Berry, who bonded with Daugherty, felt particularly betrayed, she said, and told him and Tanner that her vote was either “for Chris or against Chris.”

“I may have to prove to Julie that I’m worth having as a big brother,” Daugherty, who voted her off the island last week, told AP. “I think it’s amazing. When you go to play this game, you do not factor in emotion. I went to play and win a $1 million.”

And since no finale is complete without a plug for the next season, host Jeff Probst announced that the location for the 10th Survivor will be Palau, an island nation in the Pacific. Also, there will be 20, not the usual 16 or 18, players, with Probst promising: “Everything the survivors have come to expect will be wiped out in the first 10 minutes.”

Meanwhile, for those who might have missed ABC’s Desperate Housewives to catch the Survivor windup: Gabrielle’s (Eva Longoria) extra-marital affair with her teen boy toy sneaked out into the open, much to the shock of Susan (Teri Hatcher). Lynette (Felicity Huffman) poached another woman’s nanny, while Bree (Marcia Cross), whose marriage was already up in smoke, tipping off authorities to the marijuana son Andrew had hidden in his gym locker.

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