9|11: The Winners

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

By Graham Rayman

published: August 31, 2011

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.

Meanwhile, giant corporations continue to get government subsidies. Conde Nast, the publishing giant, got a sweet reduced price to move into 1WTC, one of dozens of big corporations which have received billions in 9/11-related subsidies and aid. Goldman Sachs, not the least controversial company in the world, obtained $1 billion in Liberty Bonds from then Governor George Pataki for its plush building across from the site. Mayor Bloomberg used $764 million in Liberty Bonds for a Durst tower in midtown and a Bruce Ratner office tower in Brooklyn—not even remotely WTC projects.

"When we were eating and sleeping post-9/11 stuff, the powers that be insisted that these subsidies would rescue lower Manhattan," says Bettina Damiani, of the watchdog group Good Jobs New York. "If 10 years and billions of dollars later, we're still proposing the same subsidies, we need to do some rethinking."

Of course, the most well-known person to profit from a connection to 9/11 is former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who reportedly made more than $20 million just from making speeches about the attacks. He also wrote a book, which earned him a $2.7 million advance. And he founded a firm staffed by members of his old administration, which earned a ton of money on consulting contracts. Mexico City famously paid the firm $4.5 million to solve their crime problem. He's also a partner in a Texas law firm. When Giuliani was running for president, Money magazine reported that he had a net worth of $52.2 million—not bad for a guy who was nowhere near that rich before the attacks. His police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, not only used the disaster to promote his book, but also bedded two mistresses in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero that was loaned to him by a patron. Kerik is now in prison for tax evasion and official misconduct.

And then there are the lawyers. From the victims'-compensation fund to the 9/11 health litigation, a select group of law firms have reaped close to a billion dollars in legal fees, often amid sharp criticism. In the WTC Captive Insurance fiasco, the city used federal funds meant to help ailing workers to pay $165 million to three law firms fighting the case. Some of those lawyers billed at nearly $600 per hour. Meanwhile, at the time, only a handful of claims had been settled for something around $300,000.

When the city finally settled it's 9/11 health claims for $600 million, Worby, Groner, the firm representing ailing responders, got $115 million, and that was actually a bargain. The firm originally sought $200 million in fees.

There was so much abuse and fraud in dispersal of money from the first Victim's Compensation Fund, says Specht, the retired city firefighter who has been a leading activist on behalf of ailing responders, that it made cynics of government officials, who were approached to support the 9/11 health funding.

"You have to have had your head in the sand not to know that the best of intentions were definitely abused," he says. "And now, the people who are really sick, they can't get help because the powers that be say, 'Oh, you're back again.'"

"There's still a huge, legitimate need out there, and we also want people to be smart about where they put their money," he adds.

And what about the government agencies who traded on 9/11 for more funding and influence? Who can forget the laughable moment when the Drug Enforcement Agency opened its own counter-terrorism operation and funded a traveling exhibit called "Drug Traffickers, Terrorists and You"? Newsday columnist Ellis Henican memorably noted that the DEA's message was, "Some 16-year-old kid smoking pot is responsible for the World Trade Center attack." Well, they had to back off of that, kind of. Now they just call it "narco-terrorism."

Then, of course, there's the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., formed to manage rebuilding and hand out $2.7 billion in federal relief funds. Somehow, 10 years later, it has morphed into a permanent organization, with 15 top officials earning more than $100,000 each, even though it has given away the federal aid, lost most of its control of the site, and failed to warn authorities about dangers at the Deutsche Bank building before a blaze there killed two firefighters. Even Mayor Bloomberg couldn't get the agency shut down.

"How can they still justify being in existence?" asks Dennis McKeon, a Staten Island man who has been active in various 9/11-related causes. "They spent millions on salaries, and haven't really produced anything."

And there's the New York State Division of Homeland Security, an agency created after the attacks that 10 years later employs 931 people, including 43 who make more than $100,000 a year, and eight who make more than $140,000. What does the office do? Well, it seems to hand out counter-terrorism money to local jurisdictions and contractors.

A lot of the money went to small-town jurisdictions where the threat of terrorism is actually nonexistent. Did Schuyler County, population 18,000, really need $246,000 in anti-terror funds? Is the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester really a terrorist target? OHS also gave out hundreds of $75,000 security grants to synagogues, and other Jewish institutions, but hardly any to churches or mosques for their security.

Next, let us consider the National September 11 Memorial and Museum itself, which will cost at least $700 million to build, and will have a $60 million annual operating budget. The Oklahoma City Bombing memorial cost $29.1 million to build. The World War II Memorial cost $175 million.

And despite the name, it's not really a "national" monument, as in something owned by the public. It's actually a private, not-for-profit entity.

The memorial is so expensive that the Port Authority, not known for its frugality, is demanding $150 million from it to cover its own outlays.

The top 11 officials of the September 11 Memorial and Museum make at least $190,000 a year, with four of them—Joseph Daniels, Alice Greenwald, Joan Gerner, and Cathy Blaney—making well over $300,000, tax records show. That's $2.8 million in salaries just for 11 people. And when former general counsel Frank Aiello left in 2009, he got a $180,000 severance payment.

To put it in perspective, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly makes just $210,000, and he only runs the nation's largest police agency and oversees a $4 billion budget.

Daniels has mounted an aggressive fund-raising campaign, which includes selling just about everything that can be sold, including stones ($100-$1,000), coins ($66.95), an "official" book of the memorial ($19.95), charter memberships ($25), "visionary" memberships (If you have to ask...), and of course the obligatory gift shop, currently housed at the "preview center." (Necklace which says "No day shall erase you from the memory of time," $80)

On top of all that, after pledging to raise its budget privately, the organization is now lobbying in Washington for federal funding.

But a lot of people are expected to donate their own stories for free, which will then be used by the museum for promotion, like the recent request for foreign-language speakers to make statements that will "potentially" be used in the museum. "Compensation: none."

Recently, Daniels caused some controversy by sending a fund-raising letter that linked the deaths of 30 American soldiers in Afghanistan to 9/11, and then went on to crow about the donation of a map showing where soldiers had buried pieces of World Trade Center steel. "It's important to have this important piece of history in our collection," he wrote. (Michael Frazier, spokesman for the Memorial, objected to our characterizing this as a "fundraising letter," pointing out that Daniels never made a request for donations in it.)

For retired fire captain Jim Riches, who lost a son on 9/11 and got sick because of the months he labored at Ground Zero, the memorial has become a tourist site, not a place of remembrance. He points out that Daniels's salary has increased from $185,000 to $340,000.

"This is a place of reverence, and remembrance, not a revenue-generating tourist attraction, which is what they are treating it as," Riches says. "They have a gift shop right there. This is obscene. This is the same as the people selling stuff on the street. What they are doing is they are making a profit. I feel sorry for all the kids who passed a hat and donated money to it."

Riches recently got some attention for criticizing former presidential candidate and Fox News anchor Mike Huckabee for selling a $9.95 cartoon video about 9/11. He accused Huckabee of trying to profit from 9/11, calling it "blood money."

Now, Riches says he hopes Governor Cuomo investigates salaries for 9/11 charities as part of a board he set up for a broader examination of nonprofit salaries.

Corbett, the professor of fire science at John Jay College, says the memorial will be enormously expensive to maintain. "I don't know anyone who insisted that it had to be done this way," he says. "Compare what it costs to maintain the Vietnam Memorial. No one asked for this enormously expensive memorial that will be difficult to maintain given the budget constraints."

The memorial itself of course is just the most prominent part of what some people call the "Memorial-Industrial Complex." Here's another: Just last week, in time for the 10th anniversary, a company called New York City Vacation Packages, which bills itself as promoting "leisure travel," announced tours of Ground Zero and the memorial complex.

For the $29 "WTC Memorial Tour," you get a tour of the site, a ticket to the memorial, and a stroll past various skyscrapers. For the $59 "Liberty Tour," you also get a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island is extra. Gray Line offers the memorial as part of package that can run to $154.

Plenty of people are still making bank off the merchandising of 9/11. Between June and next February, no fewer than 85 books on 9/11 will be published, many of them mawkish retrospectives just the same as the tearjerkers now appearing in newspapers and television. You can also pick up ex-wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura's book, American Conspiracies, ($24.95) which argues explosives caused the towers' collapse, and that the Bush administration "knew" about it. While you're reading, you can wash it down with a bottle of 9/11 wine for $19.11 a bottle, endorsed by the Memorial (!) and produced by a Long Island winery, Lieb Family Cellars.

There are also $99 coins supposedly made from silver recovered from Ground Zero. EBay is still loaded with 9/11 collectibles, including an "authentic FDNY uniform badge" for $102.50, which the seller claims "belonged to a family member who was a first responder on 9/11."

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?"

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").

Signs in the window of the museum distill this conflict. One says, "Proceeds support 9/11 victim and families." The other says, "Proceeds support the Tribute Center."

The founder and president, Lee Ielpi, is a former firefighter who lost a son in the terror attacks. A high-profile commenter on all things 9/11 for many years, he earns $93,000 for his role at the museum, tax records show.

Ielpi has been mentioned in a budding scandal over another charity which has a questionable financial track record. That group, Stars, Stripes and Skates, also known as the Heritage Foundation of 9/11, counted Ielpi among its board members, and is under investigation by the state Attorney General. Ielpi has denied any knowledge of the group's operations. (Tara Modlin, executive producer of Stars, Stripes and Skates, recently called the charges "baseless and nasty.")

The Tribute Center's executive director, Jennifer Adams, earns at least $177,000 a year. A third official, Wendy Aibel-Weiss makes $118,000 as curator.

In all, the organization spent $1.5 million in salaries in 2008. In 2009, that figure climbed to $1.85 million, meaning that an organization chiefly made up of several hundred volunteers spent more than half of its income on salaries.

Somehow, though, even with the flood of visitors to Ground Zero, the group has operated at a substantial deficit of minus $600,000 in 2008, doubling to negative $1.1 million in 2009, records show.

Sari Abraham, a spokeswoman for the Tribute Center, said Adams and Ielpi were not available for an interview. In a statement, Abraham said, "Both organizations continue to uphold their mission statements. The proceeds generated go to funding programs and the operations of the Association, including the Families' Communication Program. All programs are committed to supporting the 9/11 community through resources, events, and peer support. A portion of the revenue also goes to fuel the 9/11 community Volunteer Program which, to date, has trained over 450 volunteer docents comprised of survivors, family members, first responders, and lower Manhattan residents."

The Voices of September 11, which has received more than $4 million from individuals, major corporations, and the government, since 2003 has also come under fairly sharp criticism. The group's 2009 tax return shows that it raised $697,000 that year. The group spent two-thirds of the money, or $440,000, on salaries, benefits, and other compensation for its own employees. Another $274,000 went to operating expenses.

Voices of September 11 director Mary Fetchet makes $74,000 a year, according to the tax returns. Her husband, Frank, sits on the board. The group's fundraiser makes about $51,000.

The group's stated mission is to "provide information and support services" to people affected by the attacks. Their main operation appears to be collecting videotaped interviews with survivors and relatives of the dead on behalf of the Sept. 11 Museum, and hosting telephone support groups.

The group is also extremely focused on fund-raising. The "Always Remember Gala" last May included speeches by Rudy Giuliani and TV host Brian Williams and honored former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. Tickets were $250 each, rising to $25,000 to be a "Leadership Sponsor."

Susan Dahill, a spokeswoman for Voices of September 11, said the group provides a wide range of information to family members, survivors and rescue workers about 9/11 related issues. "When we aren't working on this, we are answering the phones: talking to people in the 9/11 community who need our assistance— finding a place to stay on the weekend of 9/11, commemorating their loved one through the Living Memorial Project, finding a support group for rescue workers or survivors suffering from PTSD," she says. "I can tell you that I have spoken to people about these issues several times this week and every week since I have been here. To someone who questions the need for our work, I would ask them how often they talk to someone on the phone who tells them they don't know what they would do without their help. That happens to us every day at VOICES. We work hard. But the reward is priceless. Someone says thank you to us every day."

On this Sept. 10 and 11, Voices is holding twin fund-raisers in New York and Washington "to support the ongoing needs of the 9/11 community." The New York lunch costs $40 a ticket, and the DC event costs $20. If you want to take out an advertisement in the program to honor a loved one, it costs up to $2,500.

Terry Sears, the CEO of another 9/11 charity, Tuesday's Children, makes $95,000 to run that organization, which collected $680,000 in 2009, and spent $512,000 of that on salaries. In 2008, the group paid its president Carmine Calzonetti $105,000. The group's mission statement claims that it has made "a long term commitment to every individual who was directly impacted" by the attacks. It says it reaches out to teenagers overseas, as a mentoring program, and a counseling program for first responders.

One of the group's projects is a book of letters from 9/11 families to military servicemen called "Hello to Heroes." "These messages should be of hope and appreciation," a press release says, adding, "copyright rules apply."

A Brooklyn-based group known as Friends of Firefighters took in $172,000 in grants in 2009, but paid out $227,000 in salaries and other compensation to employees. Founder and director Nancy Carbone took a salary of $77,000. The group claims to provide peer counseling and support for retired and active firefighters. [Editor's Note: The Village Voice stands by the accuracy of this article. The 2009 tax-return figures for Friends of Firefighters were quoted accurately. However, Nancy Carbone has provided the Voice with subsequent records for the year 2010, which show her salary that year was only $7,965, and she says that in 2009, she donated most of her salary back to the charity.]

Project Rebirth is an organization that made a documentary about five survivors of the attacks, and currently operates time-lapse cameras to record the rebuilding of the site. A worthy venture.  Guess how much the director of the project makes?

If you guessed $250,000, you were right. That's what James Whitaker, a former Hollywood producer, gets paid for the project. His editor made $153,000. The group raised about $9.4 million from corporate and government sponsors.

In a speech Aug. 17 in Loudoun, Virginia, Rebirth chairman Brian Rafferty recalled after screening the film, people would tell him, "You have a gold mine here. We have the only longitudinal record of people going through grief and coping with the psychological trauma and the grief that comes with an event like this."

There's even a car show for 9/11. The East Coast Classic Car Association hosts "an annual car show fundraiser which benefits various police and emergency groups to perpetuate remembrance of those lost on 9/11." The group raised $115,000 in 2009, but gave out just $19,300 in grants that year. Some $81,000 went to operating the charity car show. In all the group raised total of $346,000 between 2006 and 2010.

A South Carolina group called "9/11 Finding Answers" paid its founder Michelle Hayes $165,000. The group does research on terrorism, but has been accused of politicizing the attacks.

Terror Free Tomorrow, based in Washington, D.C., paid former federal prosecutor Kenneth Ballen $165,000 to advocate against terrorism.

Sentinels of Freedom, which supports injured war veterans, paid Michael Conklin $160,000. The director of the Pave the Way Foundation, which focuses on violence and misuse of religion, earned $112,000.

Even the so-called 9/11 Truth movement is raising funds. The president of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth took in about $344,000 in contributions in 2009—substantially more than the group raised in the previously three years. The group's director, Richard Gage, of Lafayette, California, made $75,450, in 2009.

The group claims to have evidence that explosive residue was found in the 9/11 dust, suggesting that "explosives brought down the towers." Some 1,500 architects and engineers have signed a petition calling for a new investigation.

Naturally, you can even buy 9/11 Truth merchandise: baseballs caps which say "9/11 was an inside job," and bumpers stickers which read "Bush knew."

All of which brings us back to Vincent Forras, who has for years shown up to 9/11 events with a dramatic account of his work at Ground Zero in a uniform festooned with so many medals that he might have made Gen. Patton envious.

Forras was never a New York City firefighter. He was a volunteer for the South Salem Fire Department until 2003, when his department released him for not working enough hours. And he actually sued his department, claimed that it was retaliating against him for talking about 9/11 and health issues. (Forras's lawyer, Michael Sussman, says the lawsuit was settled for a significant sum of money.)

There is no doubt that Forras has had health problems and received medical treatment for ailments he says are a result of Ground Zero. In fact, he received an $80,000 judgment from the first victims' compensation fund, and has said he is seeking money from the second fund created for ailing responders.

But for a man who claims to be so ill, he has had the energy to appear at a wide range of 9/11 benefits and events across the country over the years, and has done a lot of traveling overseas.

Forras's charity, the Gear Up Foundation, has won praise for donating fire trucks and equipment overseas, chiefly in Ecuador.

However, the charity hasn't been filing required documents with the New York State Attorney General's office since 2007. In addition, last October, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Gear Up's tax-exempt status for failing to file key documents for three years. The Gear Up website, however, is up and running and seeking donations.

Perhaps the most controversial thing about Forras is his account of Ground Zero, which he has told countless times to dozens of media outlets. Forras has been on many television programs, including Fox's Neil Cavuto, the CBS morning show, and Don Imus. But the details of the account vary.

In published accounts, Forras, at various times, has said he was at Ground Zero for 17 days, 28 days, more than a month, and three weeks. At times, he has said he arrived on Sept. 11, other times, on Sept. 12. Official records show his South Salem unit was dispatched to the city on Sept. 12 for several days at the Trade Center site before it was recalled at the request of the FDNY. (Forras says that his account hasn't changed, and that the differences were caused by reporters.)

In a videotaped talk with motivational preacher Joel Osteen posted to his website, Forras says he got trapped under the rubble at Ground Zero. In the video, he says left the group he was with and shimmied down a beam and along a crawl way, and then got stuck.

In a September 2006 interview, he says he was scaling the pile, when he fell into an abyss and was wedged "like a cork" at the bottom. In this account, he says he was burning and his boots were melting. In an interview with the UK Telegraph in 2006, he says a beam gave way, causing his fall. In June 2004, he claimed a pile of rubble collapsed on him, pushing him to the basement level. He has claimed he was trapped 60 feet below ground, and that he fell 60 feet.

He has claimed he simply rejoined his work crew once he escaped without telling them what had happened.

At some point during his ordeal, he tells Osteen, he had a vision from God and promised to dedicate himself to charity if he survived. In a pre-2004, five-page statement he wrote for the town supervisor of South Salem, and filed as part of the lawsuit, Forras does not at all mention that he was trapped in the rubble. Instead, he says his revelation to help people came after he found "a woman's hand with a wedding ring on her finger."

Along the way, Forras has left behind some strained relationships among people who have worked with him. Many of these people doubt his dramatic account of 9/11.

FDNY Battalion Chief Daniel Sheridan, a 25-year veteran who spent seven months at Ground Zero, briefly worked with Forras, and cut ties with him after becoming suspicious about his claims. The final straw came when he learned Forras was using the e-mail address, "wtcrescuer@aol.com."

"What really irks me is that the New York City Fire Dept. is a very selective group; you can't just walk in," he says. "The fact is that he's been using the FDNY, and doing it on the backs of the 343 firefighters who we lost, makes it worse. I believe that parts of his story are a total fabrication. I don't know how this guy lives with himself."

Hayde, the FDNY battalion chief with the elite Rescue battalion, briefly served on the board of Forras's charity before he, too, cut ties with him.

"He was less than up front about the organization and he purported himself to be something that he wasn't," Hayde says. "He told people he was a New York Fire Chief. In the context of 9/11 people assume he was FDNY, and he would let people believe it."

Hayde says the last straw was when he traveled to a Gear Up fund-raiser in Illinois, sponsored by local fire departments and the mercantile exchange. Forras showed up in a generic fire uniform covered in medals and gold braid.

"This guy comes walking in like he's Santa Anna or Admiral Halsey," Hayde recalled. "They were the kind of medals you got if you bought them at a store and stuck them on your jacket."

Hayde says he did some checking, and learned things that troubled him. "He didn't seem to have any visible means of support," Hayde says.

Hayde added that he never got involved in Gear Up's finances, so he couldn't specifically say whether the money went to a good use or not.

Hayde's account of the Chicago fund-raiser is confirmed by Joe Cantafio, a Chicago-based musician who often performs at 9/11 and military events. Cantafio says he was never paid for his performance, nor was the convention hall where the event was held. Cantafio, too, cut ties with Forras when he learned Forras was running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut. Cantafio believes Forras was never trapped.

"This guy is a publicity hound," Cantafio says. "He has this foundation, but he stepped over a big line. He put himself in the same boots as the New York City firefighters."

Several years ago, Forras bought several dozen full-size 9/11 flags from a Connecticut charity run by John Michelotti. Michelotti says Forras promised to pay him, but never did and refused to return his phone calls.

"If he called me and said, 'I'm broke,' I'd say fine," Michelotti says. "But he just blew me off. I called him several times, and I was very surprised that he avoided my calls." (Michelotti recently found himself under criticism for selling the flags for profit. He has since restructured as a nonprofit.)

Forras says that he has contacted the IRS to straighten out the loss of the Gear Up tax exemption, which he attributed to "letting things lapse" for three years.

Forras insists without equivocation that his account of Ground Zero has never changed. He accused his critics of having their own agenda. He also characterized several Voice questions as "stupid."

After the Voice quoted excerpts to him from articles that he had been featured in, where the details appeared to change, Forras attributed those differences to the reporters who wrote the articles, rather than what he actually said.

"My story has not changed one iota over all the years," he says. "If they are taking my words in an interview, and changing them, that's one thing, but my story has not wavered. The idiots who accuse me of stuff better have some ammunition to accuse me of it."

Forras went on to say, "I can't fathom why anyone would criticize a charity that has donated many trucks and hundreds of sets of fire gear over the years. All the money that went into Gear Up was my personal funding. I wonder why it threatens people so much that people did their best at Ground Zero, and always show praise to all the different organizations that served there," he added.

Of Michelotti, he says he returned the flags, and added, "I'm proud to be on his wall of shame."

So is the New York State Attorney General's office investigating Forras? "While we cannot comment on ongoing or potential matters before the office, we encourage anyone with information to please contact our office," says spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua.

grayman@villagevoice.com