Alibi V.13 No.37 • Sept 9-15, 2004 


A Total Copp Out

Dear Alibi,

I write concerning your coverage [Payne's World, “The Things People Say and Do,” July 22-28] of the many recent features in the Albuquerque Journal of Doug Copp—described by yourselves as a man who "clearly appears to be a charlatan." Appearances can be deceptive. Did Greg Payne research the man—or did he just assume the Journal told the truth? I wasn't at 9-11 with him. But I have witnessed the tremendous regard he is held in by those at the cutting edge of rescue work, and I have seen plenty of video evidence of his work spanning 17 years.

I made a TV documentary, "FutureStorm," for the Discovery Channel in Europe which used Copp as one of its contributors. I traveled to Peru with him to visit some of the most disaster-prone areas in the world. He was greeted as a hero. The head of the Peruvian fire service put a vehicle and 20 men at our immediate, unquestioning disposal. His many friends in the rescue services there spent the evenings reminiscing about rescues Copp had been involved in. I have not personally attended a rescue situation with Copp—but these men had, and they adored him. I lost most of one precious filming day because the mayor of Trujillo insisted on holding a town meeting in Copp's honor. Simply because I was associated with him, I was personally presented with the keys to the town, and an honorary degree!

There is also abundant—witnessed—footage of Copp performing complex rescues and saving lives in 20 or so different countries. The Albuquerque Journal contacted me about Copp. They chose not to use the testimony I provided. I gave them contact details for two people involved in rescue in Peru—one rescue worker, and one journalist who had covered many disasters there. As far as I can tell, the Journal failed to feature any comment from them.

There are also many issues raised by the Journal which hold very little water as simple logical propositions:

1) Tom Lang flew Copp and a group of journalists to the aftermath of 9-11 in his private jet. Is the Journal really suggesting that they were permitted to fly during a nation-wide no-fly alert simply because Lang was in the plane, or the journalists? It seems more likely that at least someone in authority was happy to accept Copp's help. The Journal neatly avoids mentioning this.

2) Likewise, the Journal implies that Copp does no real rescue, and instead spends his time draining the minibar in some nearby hotel. Yet they are happy enough to ridicule him by showing a photograph of him where his overalls have been ripped through. I need hardly point out that very few people suffer this kind of damage in accidents with minibars.

3) They assert, effectively, that Copp is a fraud, and should never have received a payout from the Victims Compensation Fund. The VCF, of course, had vastly more data at its disposal than the Journal—and concluded that Copp deserved the money. I have seen much coverage of the VCF's reluctance to pay out, even when an award seemed to be deserved—but never a story about them blindly paying out on the basis of no evidence at all. So, if the Journal was able to unearth the evidence the VCF saw, it seems obvious that this is the Journal's failure, not proof that evidence doesn't exist.

4) Why the hate? Five days of personal vilification goes well beyond the needs of good journalism—and this isn't good journalism to begin with, because it shows not the slightest hint of an attempt at balance.

As for the ill-health which the Journal claims he is not suffering from, I have seen the medication he needs to take daily. I have seen the charts of his heavy metals poisoning. I have been with him whilst a whiff of smoke on the far side of the room sent him into paroxysms for 24 hours. I have been with him when, on two occasions, I seriously thought he had died on me. His doctors are astonished he is alive. I am no medical expert, but so am I.

I have seen first-hand the passion which Copp brings to rescue and disaster management. He is solely, and single-mindedly devoted to saving lives. As such, he has frequently crossed swords with many of the more bureaucratic elements of Disaster Management: While they sit around discussing safety protocols, or which team gets to explore which damaged building, Copp and his team simply get stuck in and start looking for survivors. It is not surprising that this causes some resentment—a fact that the Journal chose to highlight, whilst ignoring all evidence of Copp's achievements.

So—“clearly" a charlatan? Not clear at all. Is he a freeloader? Nope—and I know this, first hand. A victim? Of 9-11, certainly: The damage to his health is all-too evident. Victim, too, of a personally-motivated hate-campaign? Sadly, it would seem so.

Ask yourself this: what if the allegations the Journal makes against Copp are untrue—or even badly distorted? He can't sue, of course—he can't even afford his medical bills. Who speaks for him? By suggesting that he is "clearly" guilty, you are participating in the persecution of a potentially innocent man.

I sincerely hope, therefore, that you can find some time and column inches to investigate the matter to your own satisfaction, and report your findings from a more balanced perspective than the Albuquerque Journal appears able to muster—whatever your final conclusion.

I realize that you are not the primary offender here—but it struck me that, if you find merit in Mr. Copp's account, you might a) have a great story on your hands, and b) help to set an important record straight.

Richard Burke-Ward

Payne responds: As the author of the column that prompted Mr. Burke's letter, let me be the first to acknowledge that everything you say may be true. The Journal's coverage of Copp was excessive and one-sided. Given the prominent role the Journal's owner, Tom Lang, played in the drama, it also appeared a tad vindictive—which was my primary point. Any assessment of Copp based on that series has to be taken with a grain of salt. But listen, no one said being an international rescue hero or the pilot of your own humanitarian relief jet was going to be easy.

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