9|11: The Winners

For some people, the terrorist attacks have been a gold mine

In the wake of the attacks, public contributions flooded into the city, spawning a growth industry in the nonprofit business. Hundreds of tax-exempt 9/11 charities were formed, many of them by relatives of the dead to support each other and to make their views heard.

Naturally, controversy ensued. One of the more prominent dustups took place when the Red Cross tried to divert 9/11 donations for other purposes. The director resigned, and her replacement issued an apology.

"They wanted to put the money in a general fund so they could get into it and give to other types of charities," says William Rodriguez, a north tower survivor who helped others escape the collapses and has been outspoken on a range of 9/11 issues. "They then charged 60 cents per dollar for operations costs. Come on. When you're asking people to donate their time, where are the operating costs?"

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Vincent “Vinny” Forras in the uniform of his charity, the Gear Up Foundation.
Patriot Action Network
Vincent “Vinny” Forras in the uniform of his charity, the Gear Up Foundation.

While most people assume that the victims and survivors of the attacks all received substantial aid, there is a surprising number of people who never got anything from that massive wave of giving, Rodriguez says. He says he asked for aid repeatedly from various groups but was turned down. It got so bad that he was actually homeless for awhile, and living under a bridge.

Eventually, the Red Cross money dried up, and that broader flood of donations become more of a stream. But 10 years after the attacks, there is still a substantial number of 9/11 nonprofits, including those formed by relatives and friends of the dead, and the period around the anniversary is a key time for them to raise money.

These organizations acknowledge that their missions have changed over the years, in part because of the changing nature of funding sources and priorities. Aiding families, for example, has evolved into other goals—remembrance, preservation of history, and public advocacy.

But in what is obviously an extremely sensitive subject, some 9/11 family members tell the Voice they are bothered by the continued existence of some of these nonprofits. They question just what they are doing with the money. They also charge that the groups have forgotten why they formed initially, and made it into a full-time job. They point out that when some of these organizations saw one source of funding dry up, they changed their mission to capture other sources of funding.

"It's disgraceful," Riches says. "Nonprofit means profit. They have made a career off of the worst day in American history."

Rodriguez, the north tower survivor, agrees with Riches and others. "There was kind of a silent agreement between groups and families not to criticize each other because of their grief and being united by the same pain, but it has gotten to the point where money has become more important than the mission," says Rodriguez of some of the charities.

Rodriguez earns his living by giving motivational speeches about 9/11. He claims he only does about five or six a year, just enough to make ends meet. His website describes him as "the last survivor to exit the north tower," and includes pictures of him with Charlie Sheen, the former Malaysian prime minister, a shot of comedian Rosie O'Donnell holding up his WTC ID card, and promotional poster which reads "How often do you get a chance to meet a real American hero?"

Another curious 9/11 charity operator is Stephan Hittmann, a former FDNY fire safety director and Scientologist who runs the "911 Fund." The fund's financials say he raised $1.1 million in 2008 and 2009 to donate fire gear and trucks to other countries. Hittmann infamously once showed up at event in the uniform of a deputy chief of the FDNY, when he had never even been a firefighter. Hittmann was actually fired by the FDNY, and yet still uses his association with 9/11 to raise money.

One of the more controversial of the charities is the September 11th Widows and Victims' Families Association, Inc. One of the oldest and most well-known of the 9/11 nonprofits, the group's stated mission is to "provide assistance to the victims of terrorist acts and their families and to others who experience suffering as a result of such terrorist acts."

But, according to financial records and interviews, that noble and somber mission has been subsumed to an entirely separate goal, which is managing the substantial revenues of a museum on the southern edge of the World Trade Center site, and tours around Ground Zero.

That museum, a modest venture known as the WTC Tribute Center, "connects and educates visitors with personal experiences of the 9/11 community." It's a big room with some artifacts from the towers, some videos playing and, of course, a gift shop crammed with 9/11 merchandise.

Amazingly, the museum takes in about $3.5 million a year, the majority from admissions ($15 a ticket), but nearly $500,000 from the merchandise, including a $19.95 tribute umbrella and a $69 10th Anniversary FDNY shield. An army of some 300 unpaid volunteers, largely survivors and relatives of the dead, give tours, which cost $10 per person. A typical tour includes 20 people, which means each tour brings in at least $200 an hour.

The group spends the lion's share of that money on the cost of operating the museum ($3.6 million). Some $231,000 was spent "communicating directly with victim's family members." That communication apparently means a newsletter and a website ("Make a difference, donate today").

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