By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
For the past 10 years, a former volunteer firefighter named Vincent Forras has turned 9/11 into a high-profile career that has taken him on overseas trips, gotten him photographed with mayors, governors, princes, and pro athletes, had him interviewed by national television personalities, has yielded a range of financial benefits, and an endorsement from none other than Don Imus for U.S. Senate.
Forras, now 54, of Ridgefield, Conn., certainly tells a compelling story. In an account he has told to dozens of reporters over the years, he claims that as a South Salem N.Y. volunteer firefighter, he rushed to Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, and toiled there for weeks, leaving only once to celebrate his daughter's birthday. He claims he got trapped under the rubble for two hours and only a vision from God illuminated his escape, after he promised to devote his life to charity.
He goes on to say that he got sick from the air at the site almost immediately, and became desperately ill to the point where he could barely make it up the steps of his own house. He has many times been sought out by the media as a kind of spokesman for ailing responders.
The problem is that while Forras's general account remains somewhat consistent, the details seem to change from interview to interview, and among former associates, there's no small amount of skepticism about his claims.
"He was a phony," says Donald Hayde, a distinguished FDNY battalion chief with the elite Rescue battalion, "one of those guys who manipulate half-truths to put himself in a good light." In addition, several of his former colleagues at the South Salem firehouse tell the Voice that they simply don't believe his story of being trapped.
Forras, however, is just one of a range of people, companies, charities, and agencies who have found ways to benefit from one of the nation's worst disasters.
The September 11, 2001, attacks have been a symbol of many things and many causes, but like the lavish, flag-draped rebuilding of the site, it has also been a vehicle for enrichment. From corporations to politicians to government officials to nonprofits to the security industry to publishers to the health industry (not to mention the incidents of outright fraud over the years), many people have found ways to profit from one of the nation's biggest disasters. 9/11 has created an economy all its own.
"The intersection of 9/11 and money is a busy intersection," says retired New York City firefighter Kenny Specht.
Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College, active in a range of 9/11 issues, puts it this way: "Lots of people have got their hand in the till. A lot of people and a lot of companies have made a lot of money off of 9/11."
Is it sacrilege to point this out?
Last August 16, irate commuters stepped to the microphone at a Port Authority hearing, and blasted a plan to jack up tolls on the bridges and nearly double the cost of a PATH train ride.
The Port Authority, a bistate agency that owns the World Trade Center site, initially claimed that the increase was necessary because of maintenance needs in its capital plan. But soon, the real reason emerged: $2.2 billion in more cost overruns at the World Trade Center site.
One World Trade Center is over budget by $186 million, the transit center is $200 million over budget, and other site work is $422 million over estimates from just two years ago. And those costs don't include $500 million the agency is trying to recoup from the September 11 Memorial, the MTA and the state DOT.
In other words, the already gold-plated construction plan for Ground Zero has blown its budget again and the people who are least responsible for the increase, the people who actually pay their taxes and suffer the daily commute into Manhattan, have to come up with the money to pay for it. And they have no choice in the matter. (Construction unions were all for the toll hike, and appeared at the hearing to cheer for it.)
There are several official explanations: too many cooks in the kitchen, union rules, the complexity of the project, and safer and better buildings cost more. But no one is admitting that politics, mismanagement, or profiteering could have anything to do with it.
Consider that in 2002, the respectable Real Estate Board of New York estimated that rebuilding the site would cost $10 billion. Now, the public and private price tag is $20 billion. At $3.3 billion in taxpayer money alone, or about $1,000 dollars per square foot, One World Trade Center will cost double the price of a typical skyscraper, rents will have to be astronomical to break even, and government will once again subsidize those costs, just like it did 30 years ago.
For some observers, it feels like all this spending is little more than a vehicle for dispersing cash into the economy, and enriching certain members of the construction industry—the Bovises, Tishmans, Skanskas and Turners of the world.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing the 9/11 victims being used as an excuse for the incompetence of the Port Authority and their cost overruns," says Sally Regenhard, who lost her son Christian on 9/11 and has remained one of the more outspoken of the relatives.