A year ago, the Voice profiled a controversial 9/11 non-profit organization, known as the Gear-Up Foundation, and its also controversial president, Vincent Forras, a former South Salem, N.Y. firefighter who claims to have been trapped in the rubble at Ground Zero and saved himself after receiving a vision from God. At one time, Forras was constantly in the media, and was photographed with many high profile people, like former mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In the Voice article, several former associates of Forras, including two New York City Fire Department commanders, disputed his story, and raised questions about where the money goes that he raises, and about the legitimacy of the uniform that Forras wears to 9/11 events. In a Voice interview, Forras vigorously disputed those contentions and insisted he was telling the truth.
Now, a new controversy over Forras has exploded on Facebook, and elsewhere about his dramatic story, which he has told and re-told many times, and about the finances of his organization. Posters also criticized the event Forras intends to hold today–a ceremony at Ground Zero, a flight to Hawaii, and second ceremony at Pearl Harbor, for which he had planned to charge participants $91.10 to $500, according to a Gear Up flyer. Some are calling for an investigation of Forras and Gear Up.
Forras’ statements and activities have struck a chord this year among the diaspora of current and former New York City firefighters. Terry Rivera, a retired city firefighter who was assigned to Ladder 10, the firehouse at the World Trade Center site on the day of the attacks, said he was angered because it felt to him like Forras was using Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to promote himself. “To me, it tarnishes the memorials,” says Rivera, who now lives in Hawaii. “It’s such a travesty on all levels.”
Things got so heated that the operators of the Facebook page for the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood, which has 25,000 Facebook fans, had to remove some of the comments on Friday because they were seen as too inflammatory against Forras, including some apparent death threats. (One poster said he wanted “to beat Forras until the truth came out of him.”) Forras evidently responded with threats of litigation and reported posters to Facebook.
On Sept. 5, the brotherhood asked Forras to remove a video from Facebook that Forras had posted on his site that he had not received the brotherhood’s approval to post. It was finally removed over the weekend, after the brotherhood posted a statement saying, “We consider it disrespectful action to post our video on a site of a foundation that we do not support.”
Following a conversation last Friday between Forras and Kenny Specht, the president of the brotherhood, the group posted a statement questioning Forras’ claims on Saturday.
“Mr. Forras again explained his account of events surrounding his time at the WTC site in 2001. After speaking again of his ‘entrapment’ at the WTC site, Mr. Forras was advised that we can not, nor will we support his account of getting stuck in a void for 2 hours and removing himself from the wreckage of the WTC,” the statement said.
Specht asked Forras to provide a witness to substantiate his account, and Forras “stated that he was unable to,” the statement says. “At that point we both agreed to disagree. I advised Mr. Forras that he should consider it an issue that not 1 witness observed this ‘entrapment’ , and he should consider the rage that his story has caused,” the statement said.
Specht went on to query Forras on three other issues that have been raised about Forras’ uniform, which he decorates with medals and other paraphernalia, whether the money he raises goes to injured 9/11 first responders as is suggested by a sticker on the foundation vehicle that he drives (“Help our 9/11 first responders, your donations are urgently needed” over a post office address), and about the Ground Zero/Pearl Harbor event and the act of charging people who wished to participate.
On Sunday, Forras responded with his own statement on the brotherhood Facebook page. (The brotherhood noted that the group had not tried to confirm any of Forras’ statements.)
In the statement, Forras explained that his uniform is a Gear Up Foundation uniform, and his medals and patches are either from his work with the South Salem Fire Department, or those awarded to him by “chiefs of foreign countries, ministers, government officials and presidents.”
As for raising money for 9/11 first responders, Forras said, “Our mission statement does not have a pledge to donate funds to this group.”
Forras went on to say that he had been trying to put together programs to help ailing first responders. “Over the past 1 ½ years seeing the alarming rate of deaths we made a commitment to find some way to focus on helping this group,” he wrote, including a sleep aid, meditation, and a home air purifier.
“When we were ready to introduce the partnership, the article timed to come out just before 9/11 was released, stopping our announcement,” he wrote, appearing to blame the Voice article. “Over a year of development, taping interviews with the owners and us and showing how it works ended because of the ‘hit’ piece,” he wrote.
Forras also defended his 2012 9/11 events, drawing a link between Sept. 11, 2001 and the Pearl Harbor attack. “Our goal was to first make this event something very special for all involved and invited,” he wrote. “The ‘invitation only’ event and the price that we wanted to charge was a fraction of the costs of the event.”
Notably, Forras did not mention his account of 9/11 in his statement.
Earlier, on Sept. 6, a poster named Peter Rice added this to Forras’ Facebook page: “I really hope this is not true? If it isn’t true then obviously u got to straighten this out as long as u r doing the right thing. You appear to be a straight up guy however if u r ripping off people u will pay the price in this life or the next.”
Forras replied: “Believe me, we know all about this malicious attack that is taking place. NONE OF ITS true. Those who know me, our mission and those who want to be a part of it know that its total crap.” He went on to deny that anyone involved with the foundation has taken a salary.
In another post, Forras wrote this: “These are guys who have gone on a feeding frenzy and just don’t understand what we do and why. The vast majority is our own funds and the good we do around the world is extraordinary. Now that we are trying to help all first responders with devices and treatments and building that part of our pledge we are being attacked in ways that are below the lowest of the low … its disgusting…”
In a media interview, Forras told a reporter that the threats were a “vicious, vicious firestorm of intimidation.” “I’ve received death threats, including comments about ‘putting bullets in my head,’ beating me up and horrible sexual comments about my wife and daughters,” he said.
The Voice emailed Forras for further comment, but had not heard back from him as of last night.