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'Knucklehead' or Hero?

A 9/11 PHONY— Part four 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. But his claims of valor were typical for this self-proclaimed rescue guru.

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

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    Doug Copp is the most experienced rescue professional in the entire world. He has been to more than 100 disasters, crawled through 894 collapsed buildings and saved 125,000 people.

Doug Copp
Click image for story photographs

    He has been in 50,000 newspapers. He was appointed by the United Nations as its expert in disaster mitigation. He treated several hundred children for skin disease in Venezuela. He saved India from the plague.
    Just ask him.
    Copp, 52, has been telling his tales of daring exploits for nearly 20 years. At the center is always Copp— figuring out a puzzle no one else could solve, going where no one else dared to go, enduring hardship and making big things happen.
    But many of his stories don't stand up to scrutiny, including this example from sworn deposition testimony in a California lawsuit in the 1990s:
    Copp boasted many times about his association with the United Nations and its Disaster Relief Office. He said on his résumé that his code was "UNX051" and he was tapped by the U.N. as its expert in disaster mitigation.
    He said Philippe Boullé, the U.N.'s disaster relief coordinator in New York, asked him to advise the U.N. and directed him to respond to Hurricane Gilbert in 1986.
    Boullé, who went on to direct the U.N.'s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, said in a sworn affidavit that Copp's claim to be a United Nations expert was "completely false" and that he never asked Copp to go to the hurricane.
    "UNX051" was an e-mail address for a subscriber to the U.N.'s public information network, Boullé said.
    "It is my opinion," Boullé said, "that Douglas Copp has fraudulently misrepresented himself regarding the United Nations."
    Information generated in the California court case also indicates the Mexican Red Cross told Copp not to portray the organization as a sponsor of an event he was organizing in Puerto Vallarta.
    That prompted a response from Copp to Mexican Red Cross commanding general Salvador Padilla Cano.
    "I am very surprised even shocked to receive your letter dated August 9, 1993, in which you inform us for the second time not to consider the Red Cross to be a sponsor of the conference," Copp wrote.
'Guts of rats'
    Copp says many people call him a hero for the dangerous things he has selflessly offered to do. And in Copp's version, he has courted calamity that would sour the souls of mortal men.
    "I have seen the many faces of death," Copp wrote in an essay about heroism. "I have met many thousands of dead, horribly mutilated, ripped apart and decomposing corpses. I have stared inside the eyes and reached down inside the guts of rats as I interrupt their feast of dead children."
    Copp, who was born in Canada and moved to New Mexico in 2001, is indeed known in rescue circles— sometimes as a phony, a trespasser and a bother.
    Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Chase Sargent of Virginia Beach, Va., said he had Copp removed by New York City police officers when he found Copp at the World Trade Center site in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
    Sargent said he recognized the self-appointed, most experienced rescue chief in the world— the red jump suit and video camera and lack of credentials.
    "He turned around and I said, 'Oh, no,' '' Sargent said. "Anybody who's legitimate in this business knows who this knucklehead is."
    Copp has operated the American Rescue Team International since 1986, most recently from his rented house in rural Bernalillo County off Frost Road.
    Dewey Perks, manager of the Virginia FEMA task force that responds to international disasters, said Copp has never worked in an official capacity at an overseas disaster FEMA has responded to.
    "Heard of him. Never seen him," Perks said.
    Mark Ghilarducci, who served as FEMA's federal coordinator and also as the deputy director of the Office of Emergency Services in California, where Copp lived for nearly 20 years, also knows Copp— but not as a prominent search and rescue pro.
    "There's something of an ambulance chaser to this guy," Ghilarducci said.
    Ghilarducci said that Copp "... kind of walks on to the site and takes a few pictures with the rubble behind him."
    Ghilarducci said people in the international rescue community discount most of Copp's photos, videotapes and thank you letters.
    But he said Copp's video of the rescue of a little girl from an apartment building in the 1999 Turkey earthquake looks convincing.
    Copp has used that footage and photos and videotapes he has taken of himself at other earthquakes, bombings and disasters to build an impressive-looking portfolio.
    Video of the rescue of 12-year-old Tugba Altun from a crevasse in Turkey— with Copp visible in the hole— has been included in a special that has aired on the Discovery Channel and ABC. The special features Copp and credits him with rescue. Copp says he interceded when a French rescue team was about to pull a pin that was holding up concrete that would have crushed her.
    When questioned about his rescue résumé by the Journal, Copp angrily cited the Turkey video:
    "Have you seen the videotape of me saving the little girl?" Copp said. "Well that's me. She's a real little girl. My head's stuck in with her under those slabs. That's me."
    The Journal contacted French rescue team, Secouristes Sans Frontieres, and talked to Fusun Ulu, a Turkish member who acted as the team's translator during Tugba's rescue, standing next to the little girl during the several hours it took to dig her out.
    Ulu was surprised by Copp's claim that he saved Tugba and that he stopped the French from allowing her to be crushed.
    "No, no," Ulu said. "That is not possible."
    She said she did not remember the name of the American who showed up with a cameraman, but that he was the only American there and that he was heavy and shouting orders.
    Ulu said the camera got in the way and made it harder to work and that the American was loud, telling people what to do and getting in the way.
    "He was trying to give orders but he's not the one who rescued her," Ulu said. "If he's saying that, shame on him. It's not true. It cannot be true."
    For the most part, though, Copp's claims have gone unchallenged. He has appeared on many television shows and in many newspaper features recounting his credentials.
    He has persuaded airlines to fly him to natural disasters throughout the world, persuaded hotels to put him up for free, and collected donations to his organization, the American Rescue Team International.
    Copp's persona as an international rescue expert has its roots in 1985 when Copp said he dispatched himself to his first disaster.
    He was watching a television report on the Mexico City earthquake and saw bulldozers approaching a collapsed building. Copp, who has said that he worked for demolition companies in the early 1980s, said he realized that anyone trapped in that building alive would be killed.
    He went to Mexico City and began his career as a volunteer responder to earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes and other disasters.
    Seven years later, Copp was living in Alameda, Calif., and had organized his American Rescue Team International when he criticized the state of California's approach to earthquake safety, saying that people who "duck and cover" as the state recommended would be killed.
    He advocated a technique called the "triangle of life," a phrase he coined, in which people in earthquakes are supposed to get next to solid objects such as beds or desks instead of under them for safety.
    He pointed to his Mexico City experience to support his claim.
    When a county official sent an inter-office memo to his staff saying Copp's advice was "nonsense," Copp sued for defamation.
    Copp lost the case and the Superior Court judge ordered him to pay about $4,800 in court costs. Copp appealed and also lost on appeal.
    One of the consequences of the lawsuit was that Copp's claims to grandeur were investigated.
    With Copp under oath, the lawyer for the county tried to pin Copp down on the basic elements of his résumé and experience.
    But generally speaking, the claims examined in the course of the lawsuit— from details of his college degree and employment, his supposed United Nations clearance and some of his claims of international deployments and rescues— were found to be false or exaggerated.
    For example, Copp stated on his résumé that he graduated from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1974 with a B.A. with honors in philosophy and engineering.
    Copp has boasted about his understanding of the science of structures and said his knowledge contributes to his success in search and rescue.
    He graduated with honors in philosophy from Dalhousie, but his college transcript does not reflect a degree in engineering.
    His college transcript shows he failed one engineering course and received Cs in two others. He received a D in calculus, failed to complete applied mathematics for engineers and failed introduction to architecture before changing his major from engineering to philosophy.
    Copp said he spent five months working for a German "think tank" when he was 20, the only college student among more than 200 Ph.Ds. When questioned about the claim, Copp produced a letter offering him a two-month summer internship in Germany.
    Copp moved to California when he was 31 and, according to Copp, he worked in the demolition field there.
    He included a two-year stint with Cleveland Wrecking Co. on his résumé and said he held the positions of general superintendent, estimator, project manager and engineer and did sales for the conglomerate's three companies. The company's president at the time, Donald Fenning, said Copp worked for Cleveland's Canadian company and managed some projects but did not hold the other offices he said he did.
Under oath
    Portor Goltz, deputy county counsel for San Mateo County, said his experience deposing Copp— asking him questions under oath— was "bizarre. Complete frustration. He wouldn't answer questions. I couldn't get a straight answer from him."
    For example, Copp had claimed in a document to "Have saved approximately 200 lives."
    In the deposition, Copp said he couldn't specify when or where that happened.
    "So this is speculation on your part?" Goltz asked. "You didn't pull 200 people out?"
    "No," Copp said, "because I don't pull bodies out."
    "We're talking about survivors," Goltz said. "There wouldn't be bodies at that point, they would be live people."
    "I don't pull live or dead out," Copp said.
    In a discussion in the deposition about Copp's claim that he saved 32 rescue workers, Copp said he once shouted that a compressor should be turned off at a rescue site and counted that as saving two lives because the machine's vibration could have caused a tunnel to collapse.
    He said at another time he told a crane operator to stop when his crane was swinging a piece of concrete close to some gas bottles.
    The discussion went on for several more pages before Copp said he could not provide the name and contact information for anyone he had ever rescued or anyone who had seen him rescue anyone.
    Goltz contacted several experts in earthquake response and urban search and rescue. One found Copp's advice that schoolchildren not seek cover during earthquakes "wrong," and said it would "lead to injury or death."
    Another called it "bad advice."
    The third said Copp's qualifications regarding earthquake survival were "questionable."
    Copp presented statements from two men who work with a rescue team in England and who supported his "triangle of life" survival technique.
    Goltz asked Copp to enumerate each of the 50 disaster teams he had said he worked with. Copp acknowledged that he had not actually worked at natural disasters with some of them.
    Copp listed Armenia, for example. Under questioning he said he had not gone to the earthquake in Armenia but he had spoken by phone to the head of the Armenia American Assembly in Washington, D.C., about the earthquake.
    Copp said that stamps on his passport could not be used to verify his rescue trips to various countries because he often arrives at an international disaster with permission and is whisked away to the scene as soon as he lands.
    Former FEMA chief Ghilarducci, who now works for a consulting business in California, said he has tracked Copp's claims over the years and has found almost no evidence that Copp has done anything other than go to sites and take photos and videotape.
    Ghilarducci ran the Oklahoma City command center and said Copp did not work at the site in any official capacity and that there was no way anyone without permission could have gained access to the building.
    Copp's Web site photograph from the Oklahoma City explosion, which he said he responded to within hours, shows him standing with the damaged building in the background.
    Ghilarducci said the photo is of the site at least two weeks after the explosion, when the debris had been cleared from the street and rescue operations were finished.
    Ghilarducci was in Japan attending a conference in 1995 when the earthquake hit there. He went to Kobe and coordinated between the Japanese and American governments.
    He said Copp's photos show he was in Kobe, but not much more. Copp points to a thank you letter from the Kobe mayor to prove he did important work there. Ghilarducci said the Japanese are gracious and commonly write thank you letters.
'Find a hole and crawl in'
    Copp tells of terrible conditions he has endured in his work and sickness he has picked up on his exotic travels, even though he told doctors he consulted in relation to his 9/11 fund claim that he had always been healthy.
    This is how Copp described his on-the-road lifestyle as he flew to New York in the Journal Publishing Co. jet to respond to the World Trade Center collapse.
    "Typically the way I rate a disaster is how many times is my life severely threatened? How many days do I have to go without sleep? How many diseases, or what kind of weird diseases, am I going to get? Am I going to be able to eat something that's decent or am I going to be eating something that's disgusting and probably will make me sick? ... Water. Am I going to have something to drink? ... Am I sleeping on the rubble? Once I even slept on a pile of boulders with scorpions without even a tent."
    Copp said he got wet crawling in freezing rain in the Kobe earthquake and got pneumonia.
    In his deposition, he tells of spending a month wet and dirty, driving 4,000 miles along the Mexican coastline during Hurricane Gilbert and enduring bugs hatching their eggs underneath his skin during landslides in Costa Rica.
    One of the claims in Copp's California lawsuit involved an international disaster conference he was attempting to organize in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he had been staying at a beach-side resort hotel.
    In a document Copp prepared for the case, he said the hotel had provided free rooms, supplies and telephone service.
    In New York, Copp stayed at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. A hotel spokeswoman said she could not comment on any guest. But Copp and the four men he brought with him from Albuquerque said they stayed free.
    The current room rate is about $300 a night.
    Stephen Lentz said Copp cleaned out the mini bar in his room and then drank all the liquor in the mini bar in Lentz's room. Lentz said the hotel took care of the mini bar bill.
    In New York, FEMA chief Sargent worked the night shift at the World Trade Center from Sept. 13 to Oct. 2.
    When he saw Copp's video from ground zero, even though Sargent had ordered him off the site, Sargent posted this message on a FEMA message board:
    "American Rescue Team are basically a bunch of disaster buffs who represent themselves as the guru of collapse rescue. ... Those of us in the business know these kinds of phonies for who they are."
    In his posting, he said he was "damn tired of phonies like them trying to make a name off the backs of dead firemen, civilians ..."
    Sargent's missive ended with a suggestion that the American Rescue Team "find a hole and crawl in because you are just about at the end of your bag of lies."
Who's Who—Day Four
    MARK GHILARDUCCI: consultant in California.
    Ghilarducci, a former emergency services official in California and with FEMA, has tracked Doug Copp's claims to have been part of rescue efforts at earthquakes in California and Japan and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City and found them exaggerated.
    He said Copp's pattern is to take pictures of himself at disasters and overstate his role in the rescue.
    "There's something of an ambulance chaser to this guy," Ghilarducci said.
    FUSUN ULU: member French rescue team, Secouristes Sans Frontieres.
    Ulu worked with the French rescue team at the 1999 earthquake in Turkey in the rescue of a 12-year-old girl and disputes Copp's claim that he was responsible for saving the girl.
    Ulu said she remembered only one American at the site, a heavy, loud man who was getting in the way, ordering people around and had a video cameraman with him.
    "He was trying to give orders but he's not the one who rescued her," she said. "If he's saying that, shame on him."