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Striking Out at Ground Zero

A 9/11 PHONY— Part three in a four-day series
Earlier this year, 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 no evidence Copp did real rescue work in New York. And rescue officials say Copp's claims to having a unique body locator are highly suspect.

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

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer

    Doug Copp says his small orange plastic box, which he calls the Copp Casualty Locator, can locate bodies within minutes of arriving at a disaster scene.

Doug Copp
Click image for story photographs

    Over and over again, Copp has said he invented the machine and that there is only one like it in the world.
    Copp has used the machine, he said, to pinpoint mass graves in Kosovo, to find people in collapsed buildings in Turkey, El Salvador, Taiwan and to locate many of the victims of the Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia.
    He said in his claim to the 9/11 victim compensation fund that he used the machine to find 40 bodies at the World Trade Center, although in an interview with the Journal he modified that to say he found parts of 40 bodies.
    The machine he had in New York was a Crowcon Triple Plus off-the-shelf gas detector, according to Eric Wade, a member of the team Copp assembled to go to ground zero.
    Crowcon's machines are generally used in mines, sewer pipes and other places to alert workers to combustible or toxic gases.
    Tom Mandich, the company's operations manager, said the Ohio firm fits the machine with up to four sensors at a customer's request.
    No one from the company could say which sensors were ordered on Copp's machine, but Mandich said buying a Crowcon Triple Plus with certain sensors does not amount to an invention.
    "If all he did was use our machine, he certainly didn't invent it," Mandich said.
    The machine is not designed to find human bodies, Mandich said, and would have a hard time separating out the unique components of rotting flesh from other examples of organics, which would include fuel and decomposing plant matter.
    Copp has said that he has 35 patents. Records of the U.S. Patent Office show he has filed three patent applications— for a basic casualty location sensing device and for a "detector arm" that would mount a gas sensor, a video camera and microphone— but show no patents issued to Copp or his companies.
    In New York, though, Copp did not use his detector arm. He had a Crowcon Triple Plus with his own sticker pasted over the Crowcon label.
    Copp began trying to demonstrate the machine in his first minutes at the World Trade Center site, waving its wand around the debris pile and instructing firefighters to dig with their shovels in certain areas when the machine's alarm went off.
    When the machine signaled that it had a hit and no body was found, Copp explained that the machine had detected tissue and blood that was imperceptible to the rescue workers in the dirt and dust.
    "I was with the New York police using my machine and finding like pieces of brain and stuff like that and then we'd just put it in these white five-gallon buckets and they'd take it off," Copp said in an interview later.
Promotion video
    About two months after the Sept. 11 disaster, Copp made a video to market the Copp Casualty Locator. He included footage of its use at an earthquake in Taiwan and a testimonial from his patent attorney, Pat Kelly of St. Louis, that it found a body in Taiwan.
    Copp also featured its use at ground zero as proof that it worked and said his price for the machine was $19,000. Crowcon sold its machines for about $2,500.
    The New York Fire Department chief in charge of recovery at the site said he had heard of the machine but it was never used in recovery efforts.
    "We would have used anything that aided us in rescue or recovery if it actually worked," said Chief John Norman.
    A Madison, Wis., firefighter who used Copp's machine and several of the people who traveled with Copp to New York said the machine didn't work when they tried to use it.
    Rob Verhelst of Madison said he didn't find any remains with the help of the machine.
    Wade, a former stockbroker and writer, had known Copp for a short time when the World Trade Center towers were struck. The former stockbroker had made a good deal of money selling an Internet domain name and was interested in investing in Copp's casualty locating machine— if it worked.
    Copp's team also included videographer John Grace, film producer Mike Miller and archaeologist Stephen Lentz.
    On the second day the team was in New York, Wade and Grace went with Copp to the fire department's strategic command center on Roosevelt Island to demonstrate the machine for firefighters there. Copp wanted to show the fire department's top brass the machine worked, so he would have official access to the site, Wade said.
    They demonstrated the machine on rotting meat and it did not work.
    Later in the day, Wade and Grace went to ground zero to try to make the machine work.
    They found a semi truck containing body bags that had been parked at the site. The back doors were open and they stuck the wand into a body bag, Grace said. The machine did not go off.
    Copp said he wouldn't have expected the machine to work because the machine detects decomposition and decomposition would have been stopped when the body was chilled in a morgue truck.
    Grace and Wade said they can't remember whether the truck was refrigerated, but both remember that the smell was overwhelming.
    Copp said in a Web site pitch marketing the machine that it had found 19 clusters of bodies of victims of the Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia in September 1998. He said it located those bodies, at depths of between 150 and 180 feet with winds up to 40 knots by him holding the wand above the water.
    The machine, he said, picked up whiffs as the boat he was in slowly drifted over the crash site. Copp said his machine also located the plane's fuselage.
    In a video message to the 9/11 fund, Copp said the machine located 18 bodies in 598 feet of water.
    A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which was one of the investigating agencies in the Swissair crash, said Copp showed up at the site and went out on a boat with a mountie. But he said Copp played no role in locating or recovering bodies.
    "Many agencies played significant roles," Mounted Police spokesman Wayne Noonan said. "Not him."
New design
    Some team members went to Copp in New York on Sept. 14 and told him the machine did not work.
    Copp informed them the machine wasn't working because the filter was clogged. Later, Copp said the machine gave out because of heavy use.
    Prior to Sept. 11, Albuquerque engineer Steve Harrington had been working with Copp to design a new casualty locator machine. Harrington, who did not accompany Copp's team on the first trip, ordered three more machines from Crowcon in Ohio and took them to New York aboard the Journal Publishing Co. corporate jet on Sept. 18.
    Harrington said he tried to use one of the machines at the site with firefighters without success.
    One instance still stands out in his mind.
    Firefighters called Harrington over because they believed they had located a body underneath some rubble.
    "You could smell something," Harrington said.
    He said he brought the machine over and it showed no change from its ambient level.
    That meant either the sensors were overwhelmed, the filter was clogged, or the machine didn't work, he said.
    Harrington, who was the technician for the machine, said he cleaned the filter and tried again. Still, it did not alert.
    "Our gut feeling told us something was there," Harrington said. "The sensor didn't work and we found her and dug her out. I can still see her flowered dress."
    Copp maintains that Harrington did not know how to use the machine and shoved the wand in the dirt. "It's not a friggin' vacuum cleaner," he said.
    Before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Copp, Wade, Grace and Miller had been working with Harrington's company to develop a casualty locator.
    After Wade, Grace and Miller concluded Copp's technology did not work, they became involved in a company that is researching and developing a machine they hope will do what Copp said his machine would.
    Copp accuses the three men of stealing his technology. They say they did not.
    On a Web site describing their work on a new machine, Miller and Wade highlight their experience at ground zero, saying they went there with an "independent rescue team."
    Copp's name is not mentioned.
    Miller said he initially believed Copp was going to New York to try to save lives, but was disappointed.
    "If he thought his machine worked and he told people it worked, then that's a shame," Miller said. "If he knew the machine didn't work and he brought it there, then that's criminal. I'm deeply sorry for any part I had in that."

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