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'Bombero' Arrives at Ground Zero

A 9/11 PHONY— Part two in a four-day series
Doug Copp was awarded $649,000, tax free, from the fund set up to compensate victims of 9/11. He says it's not enough. But it's doubtful he deserves anything. A Journal investigation found little evidence that Copp did real rescue work in New York. His forays into the rubble were to shoot video, some of which he tried to sell. His claim of seeking medical care within the time frame appears false. All typical of Copp's years as a self-proclaimed rescue guru.

See column at right for links to all stories in this series

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    I flew from Albuquerque to New York with Doug Copp and four of his team members early Sept. 13, 2001, on the jet owned by the Journal Publishing Co. and piloted by publisher T.H. Lang.

Doug Copp
Click image for story photographs

    It was the only plane in the sky that morning. When private and commercial aircraft all over the nation had been grounded as a precaution against hijacking, the Federal Aviation Administration had authorized this flight because it would bring a supposedly unique rescue crew to the World Trade Center.
    On the approach to the New York area, some other aircraft finally joined us— military fighter jets with orders to shoot down unauthorized airplanes.
    It was an unsettling sight. And things would soon get stranger.
    The series you are reading is about a trail of misinformation and exaggeration by Doug Copp and how he ended up taking in a lot of well-meaning people during a time of national grief.
    The list includes the Journal, because we delivered him to New York.
    It all started on Sept. 11, 2001, not long after the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
    Copp and a member of his hastily organized team went to the Albuquerque office of Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and asked a staffer for help in obtaining permission to fly to New York. Wilson was in Washington, D.C., but a staffer called the FAA and made the agency aware of the request.
    Meanwhile, Albuquerque urban search and rescue veteran Mike Holley called Lang and asked if he would be willing to fly to New York if a team could get clearance to go.
    It was not unusual for Lang to lend the plane for humanitarian missions. In fact, Lang had used the publishing company's jet to ferry Holley and other search and rescue people in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
    Holley said he agreed to go to New York with Copp if flight arrangements could be made because Copp's credentials sounded legitimate— even though Copp had been drinking when Holley showed up at his house in the East Mountains on Sept. 11— the first time the two had met— and he seemed preoccupied with photography.
    The call from Wilson's office to the FAA resulted in flight clearance on Sept. 12.
    As dawn was breaking on Sept. 13, Copp arrived at the private aviation terminal at the Albuquerque Sunport. He was in an old Cadillac, wearing shorts and white knee socks.
    He immediately started talking.
    "I know how to take that whole big pile of rubble apart real fast without anybody getting hurt doing it," Copp announced on the tarmac as the flight team prepared for takeoff. "That's what I know how to do best."
    He had six people with him for the flight— his four crew members and a reporter and photographer from a local TV station, a duo who he said were his "documentarians" for the trip.
Two too many
    Lang, who had talked to Copp by telephone the day before, had told him he could bring only four rescue people and very little equipment because of weight restrictions on the flight. When Copp showed up with six people, Lang refused to take the TV crew.
    "Four rescue people," Lang said. "That was the deal."
    Copp and his four team members made the trip.
    Also on board were Journal photographer Mike Stewart, Holley and me.
    Holley was going to New York to do what he lives to do, crawl around in damaged buildings trying to find the living and the dead.
    Lang, in addition to piloting the aircraft, was along to help Holley or other rescuers in any way he could.
    Stewart and I were there to do what journalists do in trying times— document the tragedy and the work of the men and women who at that point were still hoping to save people.
    Lang had never met Copp or any of his team before the flight, and he had spoken to Copp only once, to make flight arrangements.
    "I remember being struck when I got off the phone with him that he sounded odd," Lang recalled. "A lot of jibber jabber."
    No one among Copp's crew, we found out later, really knew him either. None of them had known Copp for more than a couple of months. None was an experienced rescuer.
    One was a video producer. One was a camera operator. One was a filmmaker. Those three were also interested in the device Copp said he had invented, the "Copp Casualty Locator."
    The fourth was an archaeologist who intended to write a screenplay about Copp's adventures.
    All would drop away from Copp over the next few weeks, either disappointed or embarrassed by their association with him. None has anything to do with him today.
    John Grace, the videographer, taped nearly all of that first day's events and shared the tape with the Journal, offering a record of Copp's approach to the monumental disaster.
    Despite the early hour, Copp talked incessantly on the flight— mostly about himself and his accomplishments.
    "I've been in more than 2,000 seriously life-threatening circumstances. I've crawled in 892 collapsed buildings. I could have a different nightmare every night for the entire rest of my entire life," Copp said. "... I'm not as crazy or loco or nutty as you might expect."
    With a trace of a Canadian accent, he talked about sifting through rubble in Peru, Mexico, El Salvador and Venezuela. He said he had discovered a unique survival technique. And he said by hollering he had saved 40 lives.
    He said bulky rescue equipment was dangerous, and that he would "go in naked" if he could.
'They're dead for a reason'
    Oddly, Copp didn't mention the one high-profile international rescue that a former federal rescue official says Copp seems to have played a part in— pulling a little girl out of a building flattened by an earthquake in Turkey in 1999.
    That could be because the French team that directed that rescue says the only American there— a heavy guy trailed by a cameraman— showed up late, got in the way and tried to order everybody around.
    About New York, Copp said his experience with collapsed structures told him that 400 to 500 people would be trapped alive.
    And he said everything would be in better hands once he arrived.
    "For me this disaster really boils down to an extremely complex, sophisticated, gigantic pile of rubble with lots of live people inside that I'm sure is freaking out and blowing the minds of all the structural engineers, architects and rescue people and fire chiefs and everybody who might be associated with it," Copp said.
    "For me, it will actually be an enjoyable experience. For me it's like playing a big chess game. It's what I do and it's a great intellectual challenge and it's one that I will be successful at."
    He also said, "This is something that I can actually do in my sleep. It's very easy for me."
    Copp held court in the rear seats of the plane, lecturing his "team" about the work ahead, reminding them that "things fall down, not up" and to give his instructions more weight than the Ten Commandments.
    And he had words about the New York rescue personnel who had responded to the disaster in the first minutes.
    "We're going to a place where there's already 500 emergency people dead," Copp said. "They're dead for a reason. They didn't know what they were doing. They made a mistake."
    After listening to Copp for a while, Holley covered his head with his jacket and tried to sleep. Lang, who had turned the controls over to a co-pilot and walked to the back of the plane to listen, rolled his eyes and returned to the cockpit. Eventually, I put away my notebook and picked up the newspaper.
    The videotape shows Copp kept talking.
    "New York City has rats, lots of rats ... And I'll tell you the word's gone out. The word's gone out for one hundred miles: 'We got 3-1/2 million pounds of meat here, boys, and we can go in and get it.' You got rats coming from everywhere."
    When we landed in New Jersey and drove into Manhattan, the nation's deadliest disaster lay a few miles to the south beneath a plume of gray smoke. At that point, it was a little more than 48 hours old and there was still hope of finding people alive in the rubble.
    But Copp's first stop was the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, where he identified himself as chief of the American Rescue Team International, the world's most experienced rescue team.
    He asked for and received free rooms.
    We paid for ours.
White House call
    Copp had put on a red jump suit at the airport that said "BOMBERO" (fireman in Spanish) in large letters on the back. He got out a laptop and a laminating machine and made American Rescue Team International badges for the operation.
    From there we went with him to the Jacob Javits Center, the command post for the rescue efforts. Copp had said we would be at the site within minutes because he had advance clearance from Andrew Card, President George W. Bush's chief of staff.
    Holley went inside with Copp and listened as Copp told the people in charge that Card would be calling them to vouch for him.
    According to Holley, Copp made numerous calls on his cell phone and told command center officers about his international experience.
    He pointed at the phone on the command center desk and said Card would call at any minute. Then he gave the command personnel a phone number and told them to call.
    Ray Lynch was the deputy commissioner of the New York City Mayor's Office of Emergency Management and in charge of the command post. He took the phone number from Copp and dialed it. The White House answered and, Lynch said, "I almost fell off my chair."
    But no one at the number could vouch for Copp. Lynch eventually reached a woman who said she spoke on behalf of Card and that Copp had no authority from the White House.
    Lynch, who has since retired, said he instructed New York State Police officers to escort Copp out of the building.
    In Copp's memory of the incident, it was the officials in the command center who acted unreasonably.
    Copp cooled his heels on the street, eating a bowl of pasta salad from the groaning buffet tables set up for rescue people by concerned New Yorkers.
    Copp then approached a police officer who was manning a roadblock and told him that cops were dying under the rubble at the World Trade Center site and that he could find them— if the bureaucracy would loosen up and let him in.
    The officer flagged down a police cruiser and told the driver to escort Copp to the site. We all hopped into the van and rode along. As night darkened, we were walking down the deserted West Side Highway toward ground zero.
    Lang, who had talked to the rest of the team members and found out they were movie makers, not search and rescue experts, confronted Copp and told him he had misled Lang and Heather Wilson. He told Copp to stay away from him, Holley, me, and Stewart.
    "I thought if we were going to be able to do anything, any journalism, we weren't going to be able to do it with this red-suited buffoon," Lang said. "I was upset that the Journal might be involved in fraudulent activity. I thought he was going to get us arrested."
    Copp, he said, sat down on a ledge and cried.
Machine alert
    As Copp recalls the event, he told Lang that he would not take him underground because he was there to do serious work.
    As we walked toward ground zero, Copp followed. We rounded the corner of a building and there it was, a huge pile of rubble and litter, pierced by huge steel splinters and swarming with hundreds of men in dusty boots and yellow bunker coats. They were working amid ash and twisted steel as if every second mattered.
    We watched Copp inch along the edge of the rubble of what would become popularly known as ground zero. Eric Wade, one of Copp's team members, held the casualty locating machine and Copp waved its detection wand over the dusty surface.
    The machine didn't go off. Then it did go off.
    Copp directed NYPD officers who had gathered around his machine to dig, saying they would find what the machine was pointing to.
    "You just scoop it out, if there's something in there the machine will say it is. It's that simple," Copp told them as they stared hopefully at the ground.
    They did dig, and the videotape shows that everything they scooped up was shoveled into buckets. The videotape also shows buckets being passed along a line and dumped on a debris pile.
    In Copp's application to the victim compensation fund, he included a snippet of that video and in a letter described it this way: "You can see my machine beeping and flashing as it finds parts of human brains, mixed with the rubble (after the bodies had splattered upon impact on West Street)."
    However, later in the video, Copp said "... but as it turned out it was just blood in the dirt."
    Copp said in his claim to the fund that he recovered 40 bodies, an assertion that both the New York Fire Department and the New York Police Department dismissed.
    John Norman, FDNY's rescue chief, said, "If we had one person recover 40 bodies, I think I would have known about it."
    NYPD spokesman Walter Burnes said Copp's machine would have been welcomed enthusiastically had it worked.
    "If this guy had come with a device that was going to locate bodies, we would have used it and we would have given him credit for it," Burnes said.
    "We recognized lots and lots of people who helped. We gave credit to people who brought milk and juice to the site."
    Because Lang and Holley didn't want to be associated with Copp, they went off to volunteer on one of the hundreds of crews scrambling around the site, pulling steel and concrete from enormous piles, passing along buckets filled with debris, hoping to find someone alive or to at least recover the bodies of those who had died.
    Stewart and I spent the night photographing and interviewing firefighters, iron workers and other volunteers as their hope for survivors turned into a grim realization that their task would be only to recover the dead.
On the air
    Copp moved on.
    The videotape shows him trying to negotiate his way across the rubble pile to a parking garage on the site's perimeter and being stopped by a NYPD supervisor. The supervisor told him to leave the site and check in for clearance at the incident command post, or CP.
    Copp told the officer he must be allowed to pass because his experience tells him victims are trapped in the garage.
    "I've been to more than 100 disasters ... and I'm telling you that's where they're live," he said.
    "You're not going anywhere until you check in at the CP," the officer said.
    Instead, Copp skirted the site and got to the parking garage, making sure the camera followed. By this point, Copp team member Stephen Lentz, a Santa Fe archaeologist, was carrying the video camera. Two other men they had met at the site were with them.
    The four walked down a ramp until they got to a collapsed section. Copp called out for survivors and then sent the other two men to the surface to find a map of the garage.
    As soon as the men left, Copp lay on his side in a tight spot and said, "Just do a shot with me."
    With the camera on, he announced that he had added a new building to the previous inventory of 892 collapsed buildings he said he had been in.
    "OK. Here's building 893, the World Trade Center in New York," Copp said to the camera. "I'm in the ramp going down to the parking garage. We're in quite deep. There's a lot of dust in the air. ... This is inside the ramp, deep inside the World Trade Center."
    Then Copp turned the camera on Lentz.
    "So what do you think being inside your first collapsed building, thousands of people dead?" Copp asked him. "Pull your mask down so we can see what you look like."
    Copp laughed and said Lentz had started his career in collapsed buildings with a bang.
    About three hours after they arrived at ground zero, Holley called one of Copp's team members on his cell phone because some of Holley's equipment was in Copp's van.
    Copp was no longer at the site, Holley was told. He had taken the video he made inside the parking garage and was on his way uptown to make arrangements to sell the footage.
    Copp says he went several days without a meal and got 23 hours of sleep in the entire 14 days he spent in New York. "The first time I went to that hotel, I frigging collapsed and then I went back to work."
    But on Sept. 14, Copp was sprawled on his bed at the Marriott Marquis (where his food and drink were being paid for by the management), according to Journal photographer Mike Stewart.
    Stewart was staying in a room near Copp's and spent most of Sept. 14 in the hotel editing and transmitting his images.
    Mike Miller, a film producer along on the trip with Copp, said he went with Copp to "Inside Edition" that day to sell his footage because Copp wanted to be on the air.
    Three days later, "Inside Edition" would lead its broadcast with Copp's footage from that first night and an interview taped in their studios.
    "Your first look inside the darkest place on earth," the announcer intoned, "crawling through hell deep in the wreckage on hands and knees, searching for someone alive."
    By the time Lang flew back to Albuquerque on Sept. 15, he had told Copp's team they were not welcome on the plane. Three team members returned to Albuquerque on commercial flights.
    Lentz stayed on and accompanied Copp on two forays into the subway underground, each time carrying the video camera for Copp. After five days, he also split off from Copp and signed on with a rescue crew.
    "He was much more a Barnum and Bailey promoter than in the fray," Lentz said. "He found a couple of areas that had already been cleared and were safe and he used them as sets."
    Lentz said his breaking point came when Copp blackened his face by rubbing soot on it, so he would look like he had been in a dangerous place.
    On that same underground trip, according to Lentz, Copp drank liquor from an abandoned bar area in the train station mall. "He said we should toast," Lentz said.
    Lang's last glimpse of Copp came when Lang returned to the hotel early in the morning after working all night at the site.
    Copp was in the lobby, the arms of his red jump suit tied around his neck and the body of the suit draped down his back like a cape.
    "He had his arms out, like he was flying around," Lang said, "like Superman."

Who's who— Day Two
    JOHN GRACE: Albuquerque videographer who was working with Miller on the Copp documentary.
    Grace trained the camera on Copp until Copp went into the parking garage and then he handed it off to another team member.
    "I felt like a fraud being there. Here people are trying to save lives and I'm tagging along with someone I'm quickly losing faith in. By the end of the night there was no doubt in my mind that the main motivation was face time on the camera rather than saving lives.
    "T.H. LANG: Publisher of the Albuquerque Journal.
    Lang flew Copp and the four people Copp said constituted his rescue team to New York on Sept. 13 on the Journal Publishing Co. corporate jet.
    Lang said his doubts about Copp started when he heard Copp's briefing on the plane, in which Copp said he had been in 2,000 life-threatening situations without getting a scratch; said he used his hair follicles as sensors inside a building and repeated that "things fall down, they don't fall up."
    "It sounded arrogant, braggadocio. It was astoundingly preposterous," Lang said. "I called Mike Holley (up to the cockpit) and said, 'What have you gotten us into?' ''
    MIKE MILLER: Albuquerque video producer who was working with Copp on a documentary about his work when 9/11 happened.
    Miller made arrangements for the trip to New York and for the sale of videotape of Copp at ground zero.
    On Copp's claim to have recovered 40 bodies: "Nonsense. I know nothing about that. No. Time out. I know he spent a lot of time complaining about a lot of things in the hotel room and running around like a chicken with his head cut off."
    ERIC WADE: Former stockbroker and filmmaker who had made money by selling an Internet domain name and was interested in the business prospects of Copp's casualty locator.
    Wade tested the casualty locator with rotting meat and a human body in a body bag at the site and said it didn't work. He also denied Copp did any rescue or recovery work.
    "I was broken hearted. I was disillusioned," Wade said. "I thought I was going out there with a real hero."
    MIKE HOLLEY: Electronics manager at Baillio's.
    A former North Valley regional chief for the Bernalillo County Fire Department, Holley had experience working in the rubble of the nation's other dreadful disaster, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
    Holley was looking for a way to get to New York when he came in contact with Copp and his team. Holley didn't know Copp and said he began to doubt his credentials before the flight to New York.
    "What he said funds his team was taking footage and selling it to the highest bidder in the news media. That was a red flag. That's unheard of," Holley said. "In this business it's not hard to tell the real from the fake, and he's fake."

Leslie Linthicum can be reached by e-mail at llinthicum@abqjournal.com.