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Sunday, July 11, 2004
New Mexican's Claims of Ground Zero Rescue Work Called Into Question
A 9/11 Phony Part one in a four-day series
Self-proclaimed rescue guru Doug Copp's mission to ground zero was considered so important that he had clearance to be flown to New York even though all civilian air traffic in the United States had been grounded. Once there, he says he assumed a pivotal role and sustained devastating injuries while wading through the "toxic soup" in search of survivors and victims, and was awarded nearly $650,000 for his injuries. But there is little evidence Copp performed real rescue work, and it is doubtful that he deserves compensation.
See column at right for links to all stories in this series
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
Doug Copp made his case to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund last fall with a story that stood out even among the incredible tales of bravery and loss that are the daily bread of a board assigned to compensate victims of the nation's worst terrorist attack.
As the most experienced rescuer in the world, equipped with the only device that could detect the scent of decaying flesh, Copp said, he mobilized a search and rescue team from his home in the East Mountains after the World Trade Center buildings were hit.
Click image for story photographs
He said he flew to New York the next day and undertook the most dangerous work searching the deepest underground cavities of the rubble.
"For six days, Mr. Copp waded in a toxic soup, breathed toxic air, and had toxins smeared on his body surface," a report by one of his doctors said. "It is unlikely that anyone has ever in human history been exposed to as concentrated or complex a mixture of dangerous chemicals."
Copp's claim to the victim compensation fund said he returned to New Mexico two weeks later and was never the same.
Over the next months, Copp said, his health deteriorated until he could walk no more than a block without resting. His list of 41 medical problems included chest pain, coughing, blurred vision, dementia and a fractured spine.
Kenneth Feinberg, the special master of the fund, heard Copp's case for two hours in Washington, D.C. Then he sent Copp a check for $649,885, tax free.
That might have been the end of the story except for two things.
Copp is not satisfied with the amount of money. He says he will die if he doesn't get at least $1 million more for medical treatments.
And there is substantial evidence that Copp's claims of heroism and life-threatening injuries regarding 9/11 are not true. An Albuquerque Journal investigation also found a nearly 20-year history of exaggeration, self-promotion, freeloading and very little evidence of real rescue work.
Copp on various occasions has bartered tales of bravado and heroism for free airline flights, hotel rooms and donations all in the name of helping innocent disaster victims and saving lives.
One former high-ranking federal disaster official says Copp's modus operandi is to hang around rescue sites and take pictures, then say he played a crucial role.
The Journal's investigation found that Copp's experience in New York generally fit that description.
New York Fire Department Chief John Norman was in charge of the massive rescue and recovery effort at ground zero. He said Copp had no authority to be at the site and played no legitimate role in the search and rescue.
Norman said Copp's claim to have been the first to search collapsed subway tunnels and only one of four people to go underground is "a fraud."
Had he known Copp was on the site, the chief said, he probably would have had him arrested.
Chase Sargent, a night operations chief for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he ordered Copp off the World Trade Center site. Sargent called Copp a phony, and claims by Copp's rescue organization "a bag of lies."
Despite claims to the commission that he spent "a week several floors below ground zero," Copp now concedes he went underground at ground zero just six times for a total of eight to ten hours.
But one of Copp's former colleagues said Copp spent only a few hours at the World Trade Center site in the two weeks he was in New York. According to the diary of Stephen Lentz, each time Copp and Lentz ventured to ground zero, Copp obtained videotape, which he sold to a television news show.
Lentz said Copp visited the set of "Inside Edition" twice and passed much of his time in a nice Times Square hotel, on the phone trying to "drum up publicity for himself" or drinking from the mini bar.
Copp claimed his death-detecting machine helped him recover 40 bodies. In fact, there is general consensus that it didn't work.
Copp's medical claim relied heavily on a report by Dr. Timothy Smith, a California anti-aging specialist.
Smith said Copp's immune system is seriously compromised in ways that affect his breathing and thinking. He said Copp's exposure to molds and toxins have caused autoimmune responses that bring on shortness of breath and swelling of the brain.
But two doctors who reviewed Copp's medical records for the Journal said they do not show Copp was seriously injured or completely disabled.
A pulmonary specialist said the records submitted to the fund show the most serious ailment Copp suffers from is a mild lung restriction. An internist said the records show Copp has mild asthma, is overweight and is clearly depressed.
'A medical miracle'
Copp is a bombastic 52-year-old Canada native with a flair for dramatic exaggeration. He frequently talks about his accolades, which he says include 650 pages of diplomatic papers and thank-you letters and hundreds of hours of video of his rescue missions.
Copp says that lately he's been on the road in his RV.
In wide-ranging phone conversations from various locations on the road, Copp has talked about his health, his heroism and how he hasn't gotten a fair shake. He often rails against Feinberg, head of the compensation fund.
"I'm a medical miracle," Copp said in a phone call from somewhere in Texas in April.
He said his doctor told him that never in history has there been anyone with this concentration of toxins in their system.
"I'm literally trying to stay alive," Copp said in the telephone interview. "I haven't had a single day that hasn't been insufferable pain."
When Copp called two weeks later from a fishing village in Canada, he said Feinberg is "a rat. He's just a plain, son-of-a-bitch rotten rat. He's not doing his job because Congress put the money there to help people like me so we wouldn't be dying in the street."
In another phone call, Copp said, "He told me I was a hero and sentenced me to death."
New Mexicans who traveled to New York with Copp on Sept. 13, 2001, said they were astonished by the claims Copp made to the compensation fund and by his award.
"My understanding of that fund was that it was for the victims and bona fide rescue people," said Eric Wade, a writer and filmmaker who had known Copp only a short time when he signed on as a member of Copp's team. "I'm mortified. I'm horrified that he even made a claim."
Mike Holley, a former North Valley regional chief of the Bernalillo County Fire Department who flew to New York with Copp, said he spent hours crawling through crevasses and saw Copp only twice at ground zero once when they arrived and again when Copp returned to the underground subway station because his video camera battery had run out and he wanted more footage.
"I went down (underground) and I spent a lot more time than he did," Holley said. "Am I dying? I refuse to take money from the families of the victims."
John Grace, an Albuquerque videographer who also went to New York with Copp, said Copp fits neither of the categories the fund was designed to repay.
"Doug Copp," he said, "is neither a hero nor a victim."
Copp flew to New York on a corporate jet owned by the Journal Publishing Co. and piloted by publisher T.H. Lang with FAA clearance obtained by the office of Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. Lang said he agreed to take Copp to New York because Copp came recommended as a bona fide rescuer.
He said he didn't realize until he was on the ground in New York that Copp's team consisted of a screenplay writer, a film producer, a cameraman and an adventurer. None had any rescue experience.
On the ride toward the smoldering ruin where thousands of people were still missing and presumed dead, Lang said Copp was telling gruesome tales and laughing. "It was all juvenile, unprofessional," Lang said. "I thought, 'This is bogus.' ''
'Pumped up' truth
Lentz, a state of New Mexico archaeologist who was writing a screenplay about Copp's life and came along on the trip, wrote an affidavit about Copp's work at ground zero at Copp's request.
That affidavit, signed by Lentz in his capacity with the state Office of Cultural Affairs, was part of Copp's claim to prove he was legitimately at the site and was injured. It was the only independent, firsthand evidence, besides Copp's own assertions and his video, of his work in New York.
Today, Lentz says he did not lie in the affidavit but says he "pumped up" Copp's role because he felt badly that Copp said he was ill and in debt.
"I painted a rosier picture of Doug than maybe was the truth," he said. "It is a little pumped up because I wanted to help him with his bills."
Lentz's affidavit said "... numerous casualties, including NYC firemen, rescue workers, EMTs and policemen were located as a direct result of Doug Copp's efforts and equipment."
But Lentz says today that Copp located no bodies that he knew of, although he believes Copp's equipment was used by others who found corpses.
The affidavit also said, "Several stories below ground level, we waded through water, jet fuel and effluents from ruptured sewage pipes and the Hudson River."
Lentz says today that he and others walked through that muck, but Copp was not with him. He also said he saw Copp smear soot on his face to appear he had been in more dangerous circumstances.
In terms of rescue work, Lentz said, "I gotta tell you, he didn't do anything like that."
"He never lifted a bucket," Lentz said. "He didn't do anything."
Lentz said in his affidavit that Copp slipped and fell in the subway area on Sept. 18. The September 11th fund initially refused Copp's claim based on a back injury because it would have had to occur by Sept. 15 to qualify for the fund.
Lentz said Copp asked him to change the date on the affidavit to reflect that the fall occurred earlier. Lentz said he refused and had nothing more to do with Copp.
Copp's initial claim included lung and other injuries, and his subsequent communications with the fund centered on those. Lentz said today he regrets that anything he wrote could have given the impression Copp did legitimate work at ground zero.
"I would never sign an affidavit saying he was the hero of 9/11," Lentz said. "I think basically he was a fraud and a bombast."
In earlier interviews, Lentz was more supportive of Copp and of the affidavit.
He said telling the full story now, "is kind of liberating for me because I've kept this to myself for so long."
Copp, when confronted with the accounts of his colleagues and other evidence that dispute his version of events, talked for five hours one Saturday in Albuquerque.
He was alternately angry, boastful and forlorn.
"So now is this going to come out that there's nothing wrong with me? That I'm a total fraud? That it's bogus? That I went there drinking and sitting in the hotel and wiping dirt on my face and now there's nothing really wrong with me?" Copp said.
"That would be . . . the most immoral thing I have ever heard of in all of my years of going and seeing death squads and all sorts of other things. That would be the most immoral, improper thing that I have ever heard of."
Copp provided scant evidence of what he did in New York to respond to assertions that he did nothing. But he attacked at length people who have questioned his claim. Copp said:
- Team members are lying because they are embarrassed about their own actions at ground zero or because they want to steal his body-finding machine technology.
- FEMA officials are lying about him because they are jealous of his TV time.
- The New York Fire Department is lying about him to cover up its cowardice in failing to search for victims.
- Lang is pursuing a vendetta against him because he wouldn't take Lang underground.
When he was asked by the Journal for the name of someone he worked with at ground zero who could vouch for him, Copp offered Ron Hadani, an electrical engineer from New Jersey.
When reached by phone, Hadani described the time he spent with Copp in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as strange.
Hadani, who went to New York to lend a hand, said he ran into Copp at the Jacob Javits Center and Copp took him to ground zero twice.
Hadani said the area they were exploring was dirty and dangerous, but that Copp did not appear to be looking for victims. Copp had a video camera along, Hadani said.
"I don't know if it was picture taking, but if you want my opinion it wasn't rescue," Hadani said.
Hadani said Copp took a lot of video and found no survivors or victims in their time together.
"And then when FEMA threw us out, I realized the whole thing was fake," he said.
$6.5 billion payout
Congress created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to avoid an anticipated onslaught of lawsuits against the airlines whose planes were hijacked and the New York Port Authority, which owned the World Trade Center.
The fund has compensated families of people who died in the four crashed airplanes, on the ground at the Pentagon and at the World Trade Center as long as they agreed not to sue.
The fund also has compensated families of rescue personnel killed in the initial response and rescuers who were injured in the aftermath.
The fund, which ended its operation last month, was essentially unlimited by Congress. And Feinberg, a veteran trial lawyer, was given leeway in deciding who got paid and how much. Awards have ranged from $500 to $8.6 million. Feinberg said the fund will have paid out about $6.5 billion.
There are four tests an applicant claiming to be a rescuer must have met to be considered for compensation according to the guidelines set by Congress.
- The rescuer had to have been injured at the site within 96 hours of the planes hitting the World Trade Center buildings, or by about 9 a.m. on Sept. 15.
- The rescuer had to provide proof of physical injury.
- The rescuer had to seek medical treatment within three days of the injury (although Feinberg could make exceptions to that time restriction).
- The rescuer required hospitalization or could show the injury caused partial or total physical disability, incapacity or disfigurement.
Copp told the fund he went to New York on Sept. 12, but didn't even arrive at a New Jersey airport until the afternoon of Sept. 13. He was escorted out of the rescue coordination command center when he went there to get credentials and got to the World Trade Center site several hours later by talking a street cop into taking him in.
His lawyer, Charles K. Purcell of Albuquerque, said in a letter summarizing his claim that Copp "quickly assumed primary responsibility for exploring the subterranean areas of ground zero. Day and night Doug searched for survivors in a place where day and night were indistinguishable in underground ruins where very few others dared to go."
A videotape made by the film crew Copp brought along shows Copp looking for bodies with his casualty-locating machine and going into a ramp leading to a collapsed parking garage that first night.
The tape shows Copp asking for a dust mask and coughing twice in the underground parking area and commenting "there's a lot of dust in the air."
However, Copp said in an interview in April that the air there was clean.
The videotape also shows Copp interacting that night with a New York Police Department supervisor who instructed him several times to leave the site and check in at the command post before returning.
Copp did neither but motioned for his cameraman to follow and keep filming.
According to team members, Copp was only at the site a few hours and then returned to the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square where he was staying for free.
The site was closed for most of Sept. 14 because of President Bush's visit. Copp spent Sept. 14 making telephone calls to peddle the videotape and arranging an interview with "Inside Edition," according to Mike Miller, a film producer who accompanied Copp on the trip.
Copp also took his casualty-locating machine to the fire station on Roosevelt Island in the East River and team members attempted to demonstrate its use so they could get permission to return to ground zero, where restrictions had become tighter after the president's visit.
Grace and Wade said the machine failed in that demonstration.
By the morning of Sept. 15, when the fund's timetable for injuries ended, Copp had been underground only once, according to Lentz, and had been above ground at ground zero only for a few hours.
Wade, who was in New York with Copp during the time period that coincides with the Sept. 11 fund's requirements for rescue work, said Copp spent most of that time at the Marriott Marquis.
"He was at the hotel and uptown and whereabouts unknown," Wade said. "At the hotel 16 hours a day at least. He was at the hotel when we left and when we got back." Bald-faced liar'
Copp says he made two trips to the parking garage and four to the subway area, each time looking for bodies. He said the subway area was where he encountered thick smoke, dripping jet fuel and other liquid that made him sick.
Lentz said he kept a diary of the trip. He said it shows that Copp's first trip into the subway area occurred sometime around midnight on Sept. 16 which would have been outside the fund's time frame for injury.
That excursion was also videotaped and the video sold to "Inside Edition."
Copp says a message spray-painted on the entrance to the subway underground that said, "DO NOT ENTER UNSTABLE" is evidence the area had not been searched and proves he was brave enough to go where others would not.
But FDNY Chief Norman said he had gone with crews into the subway stations late on Sept. 11, made the determination that no one had been crushed or trapped and had the areas marked "cleared." Norman said the claim that Copp had authority to clear the underground is untrue.
"That's an absolute fraud," Norman said. "I was the chief in charge of the site. I didn't authorize him to do anything." Norman bristles at Copp's assertion that he searched for survivors or bodies where FDNY or FEMA wouldn't.
"I'll call him a bald-faced liar to his face," Norman said. "That site was thoroughly searched, both primary and secondary searches, before any area was marked off limits. We had people going places and doing things that I never would have permitted in any other circumstance because we had over 300 of our brothers among the thousands missing."
Lentz said Copp's purpose in going into the subway the second time on Sept. 18 was to get more videotape. TV had been stymied by media restrictions and was hungry for more images from ground zero.
Lentz videotaped Copp's second trip to the subway station and said he watched Copp smear soot on his face to appear he had been in a dangerous place.
Copp maintains he did not put soot on his face. He said Lentz must have been confusing him with someone else. When he was told Lentz was sure it was Copp who was involved, Copp said, "That is such an outrageous lie. My God, that breaks my heart to hear that."
Later in the interview Copp said, "I can tell you right now, telling me I put black on my face I'd rather someone put a bullet hole in me."
A FEMA supervisor said he confronted Copp outside the subway entrance that night and had him removed by police. Copp says FEMA did not have him removed he was leaving on his own and that they didn't want him there because he was showing them up.
"They got mad as bloody hell that we went in there, mad as bloody hell, and they came to me and they confronted me with it," Copp said.
Lentz said he stopped working with Copp after that excursion because he thought their purpose at the site should be to help, not to make money off videotapes.
"There wasn't much of an effort to do anything," Lentz said. "It was me training the camera on him. It was really posing for the camera."
The soot-smeared Copp posed for a still photograph when the team emerged from the subway that night, Lentz said.
Copp attached that photo to his cover letter to Feinberg with his claim to the fund. He pointed out, "I am the one with the Black Face."
JOHN NORMAN: Chief of special operations for the New York Fire Department.
Norman was in charge of the World Trade Center rescue and recovery operation, and he called Doug Copp's claim to have cleared the cavities underneath the twin towers "a fraud."
He said Copp was at the site with no authority and bristles at Copp's boast that he searched areas FDNY was afraid to enter.
"We had people going places and doing things that I never would have permitted in any other circumstance because we had over 300 of our brothers among the thousands missing," Norman said.
CHASE SARGENT: A Virginia Beach, Va., fire battalion chief and member of a FEMA task force.
Sargent was one of the night operations chiefs at the World Trade Center. He said he found Copp on the site without credentials and had him escorted off.
Sargent said he knew Copp by reputation as someone who shows up at rescue sites without authorization, takes video and gets on TV.
"Anybody who's legitimate in this business knows who this knucklehead is," Sargent said.
STEPHEN LENTZ: Archaeologist for the state of New Mexico.
Lentz had met Copp weeks earlier and had decided he would write a book about Copp's adventures. Copp persuaded him that writing a screenplay for a movie about him would be a better idea.
After another team member declined to take the camera underground, Lentz became the photographer and spent the next few days with Copp.
Lentz wrote an affidavit in support of Copp's claim to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, but now says he "pumped up" Copp's role because he felt sorry for him.
"I would never sign an affidavit saying he was the hero of 9/11," Lentz said. "I think basically he was a fraud and a bombast."
RON HADANI: A New Jersey man who went to New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 looking to lend a hand. Copp gave the Journal Hadani's name and said he could vouch for Copp's work in New York. Hadani said he ran into Copp at the Jacob Javits Center and Copp took him to ground zero.
"The whole thing was kind of weird," Hadani said. "We were wandering around there for a few days."
Hadani said he and Copp were thrown off by FEMA officials. "I can tell you," Hadani said, "that it was not serious rescue work."
When he found out Copp received money from the victims fund, Hadani got angry.
"That's outrageous," he said. "It's immoral."
Leslie Linthicum can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.