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Copp: I never did anything wrong

Did the 'world's most famous rescuer' defraud the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund? "Dateline" traveled to Doug Copp’s home in Nova Scotia to find out from Copp exactly what happened. 
/ Source: Dateline NBC

NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA— Canada’s sea coast has crisp air and clear waters. This is where the man who describes himself as "the world’s most experienced rescuer" has retired since going to Ground Zero.

It’s Doug Copp’s place of birth and the place where — unless he gets more help from the U.S. government — he says he’ll likely die. 

"Dateline" traveled to Doug Copp’s home a thousand miles away from Ground Zero to find out from Copp exactly what happened. 

Copp gave "Dateline" a tour of his new house, invited us to dinner, and showed us some articles and videos that featured his work. He even showed us some prescribed home improvements that he says help remove the toxins from his body — including an indoor hot tub and sauna.

We followed Copp to see his doctor two hours away from his home, where he received intravenous treatments to remove what he claims are life-threatening levels of lead in his body.

Copp's apparent health problems are central to his version of what happened to him in Ground Zero. Despite the long list of accusations spelled out in the Albuquerque Journal series, Copp claims he is a hero who nearly killed himself trying to do good work at Ground Zero. And, if anything, the U.S. government owes him many times more than the $650,000 it paid him.

Doug Copp: They pay you for pain and suffering. They pay you for lost income. And they pay your medical expenses. I expected I would get something like $5 ½ million. That’s what I expected.

But Copp reserves a special outrage for those who have questioned his reputation as a rescuer. His anger occasionally flared up when we attempted to get his side of the story.

John Hockenberry: The first night you’re with your machine. It’s a very emotional moment it seems. Lots of fire fighters and rescue workers and police and contractors are gathered around you. Did your machine work?

Copp: It beeped and flashed indicating that there was bacterial activity on flesh. But the pieces were so small. We thought they were from people that jumped and were splattered. And there was a white bucket there. We put them all in the white bucket.

Hockenberry: You told the 9/11 fund you found 40 bodies.

Copp: I told that the machine did.

Hockenberry: No, you told the 9/11 fund that Doug Copp found 40 bodies at Ground Zero.

Copp: That I was responsible for it. Since I invented the machine, I’m responsible for it.

Hockenberry: We’re talking about rescue and recovery of bodies. There is no video of you recovering any human remains.

Copp: Yes, there is.

Hockenberry: And there’s lots of video of Doug Copp. 

Copp: Yes, there is. I have it, and you’re welcome to see it. And you’re welcome to air it.

"Dateline" checked all the video Copp provided of himself at Ground Zero and found nothing that supported his claim that he or anyone on his team of finding any remains or bodies with the help of a body-finding device. When we showed the tape to FDNY Chief of Special Operations John Norman, he was not impressed. He said, "Those are nice videos. I cannot imagine that there were 40 bodies located in any one point in the nine month recovery of that site."

But clearly, Copp was there. The question is was his exposure to the "toxic soup" described in his petition enough to make him as sick as he says he is?

"Dateline" spoke to Dr. Tim Smith, an anti-aging specialist in California who prepared the medical report Copp submitted to the Victim Compensation Fund. He says Copp's health problems were and are real.

Dr. Tim Smith: Some people are much more likely to be damaged given x amount of exposure and he’s one of those people. We discovered that he had sustained major damage to his immune system and to his ability to detoxify his body and to his brain and respiratory system.

In fact, a comprehensive medical analysis of 1,100 Ground Zero workers found that more than 800 suffered the kind of respiratory problems Copp describes. But unlike Copp, those workers had spent, on average,  months — not days — working in the rubble.

What about those other health effects Copp attributes to his time at Ground Zero, like cerebral edema, hypothyroidism and glaucoma? That study found no association between Ground Zero exposure and any of those medical conditions.

Copp even wants liposuction at taxpayer expense to remove the Ground Zero toxins that he claims are still in his fat cells.

Copp:  The treatment I’m going to take is something that I think if I can get liposuction—I gained like 30 pounds within the first month. And the doctors explained to me that I gained that because your body, when you’re poisoned, like your heart and there’s poison in it? It’ll form fat around it. It’ll push all the poison out into a place to get it out of your organs. So, I had so much poison in me that I had that rapid weight gain.

So, the way I understand it now, and I’ll be asking doctor about it again. But, I think the only real alternative for me—‘cause I don’t want to go through six years of that hell, is to go and have liposuction. And, if I have liposuction and I can suck out all the poison that’s in that fat, they tell me, well, the big thing about any liposuction is fear of infection and inflammation.

Hockenberry:  So, you want the U.S. government--

Copp: In my—in my case—

Hockenberry: So, you want the U.S. government to pay for your liposuction?

Copp: In my case—

Hockenberry: That—that—but, that’s what you’re saying.

Copp: I want—to you know, they aren’t paying me for anything. It allowed—

Hockenberry: They paid you $650,000.

Copp: Just let me finish—kids who finish without putting in some—some—

Hockenberry: Doug—Doug, you’re—you’re ranging wide a field here.

Copp: No, no, look. What I’ve decided to do is—you asked—

Hockenberry: I—I let you—

Copp: What I’ve decided to do is—is get the poison out right away. But, my immune system and my nerve system are so devastated and so inflamed, I take pills every day to drain fluid from my brain.

Copp bristles when asked if his medical problems might have been overblown or unrelated to Ground Zero.

Copp: My God almighty, I’ve been to 25 doctors. The leading expert in the world I’m told said, "If Doug Copp doesn’t get $1,960,000 cost of the treatment that is detailed he will probably die."

Hockenberry:  How come the other people who were with you don’t have any of the medical symptoms that you describe? 

Copp: The labs have shown that I’m poisoned. All these doctors are saying how sick I am. I get so exhausted and so tired, and I have such little energy to do things that I literally I’ve got like half an hour a day that I can be functional.

Hockenberry: All right, you say you’re functional for about a half hour a day?

Copp: If—it varies, but—

Hockenberry: We’ve been going for about two hours now.

Copp: Up until a couple of weeks ago it was—half hour day. But, you got to understand this: I have stopped my treatment for this interview. I prepared for this interview for two months.

Hockenberry: Are you permanently disabled?

Copp: I’m more than permanently disabled. I’m—I’m somebody that’s—

Hockenberry: How could you be more than permanently disabled?

Copp: If someone had, was, a quadriplegic, then you could say they’re permanently disabled.

Hockenberry:  I’m a paraplegic.

Copp: Yeah, but you still have your mind. 

Hockenberry: You know, Doug, you don’t seem permanently disabled to me. I mean, I know a thing or two about disability. You may be, but that’s not my impression.

Copp: Well I’ve already told you that I’ve prepared for this interview for two months.             

And when it came to the key — the $650,0000 question — this is what he had to say:

Hockenberry: Did you defraud the U.S. government out of $650,000?

Copp: That is such a—the thought of that is so inhumane. So inhumane.

Hockenberry: Is that a no?

Copp: My God—that answer—"no" is not adequate enough. I mean my God almighty, would you even be satisfied if I died there? Would dying be enough? My God, I suffer every day.

But it is a question Copp may hear posed again. The congressman who once supported Copp asked the Justice Department to look into Copp's claims. Though it declined to comment on Copp's case, the Department of Justice confirmed to "Dateline" that it is conducting an active investigation into the facts of Copp's petition to the Victim Compensation Fund.

Hockenberry: The Department of Justice may ask you the question, “Did you defraud the U.S. government?” What’s your answer?

Copp: I don’t believe they’re going to ask me anything. Because all they got to do is they got to look at the facts and—look at that affidavit and other facts and—and what I’ve done there. And the video of what I’ve done.

Hockenberry: So, you’re not worried?

Copp: I didn’t—absolutely not. Because I never did anything wrong.

But for whatever reason, Doug Copp has been humbled by everything that’s happened. He’s looking forward to the next rescue if he ever gets that chance.

Copp: I think that if another disaster was to happen now and I knew that my brain was good enough, that I’d been off the medicine long enough, I would be willing to go and risk my life and die if necessary. In fact, that’s the way I would rather go.