St. Petersburg Times Online
Advertisement
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

When tragedy meets capitalism

Many of those who profited from the attacks share feelings of surprise. Others won't share any feelings at all.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 2, 2002


Many of those who profited from the attacks share feelings of surprise. Others won't share any feelings at all.

On Sept. 11, New York police Officer Daniel Rodriguez rushed toward the World Trade Center. He was two blocks away when the first tower collapsed.

Last night, he sang at the Hollywood Bowl. The $100-a-seat section was sold out.

"Out of great tragedies sometimes come great blessings," Rodriguez said. "God has done amazing things for me."

The terrorist attacks changed a lot of people forever -- some for the better -- and those who have benefited tend to fall into two groups.

There are people like Rodriguez. The so-called "Singing Cop" didn't set out after Sept. 11 to enlarge his paycheck, but it happened anyway.

In his new role as an accidental beneficiary, Rodriguez has plenty of company. There's "America's mayor," Rudolph Giuliani, whose calm leadership under fire led to a $3-million book deal and as much as $100,000 per speech. There's former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, whose book was completed just before the attacks, then repackaged to reflect the events of Sept. 11. It became a bestseller.

There are also the shareholders in security firms who saw the companies' fortunes soar. By 2008, governments and private corporations will have spent an estimated $100-billion on homeland security, according to Dani Inbar, who co-founded a new company called Homeland Security Research. That enterprise offers a free newsletter, but sells analyses on antiterror defense companies for as much as $15,964.

Plenty of other people took deliberate steps that could lead to profit from the attacks.

People like Moti Shniberg, chief executive officer of a multinational corporation called ImageID Ltd. On the very day of the attacks, Shniberg was filing paperwork seeking a U.S. trademark on the date "September 11, 2001." His application is still pending.

Shniberg, whose company is based in Rosh Haayin, Israel, did not return calls for comment. His New York staff representative, Oded Barak, whose name appears on the paperwork filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said he knew nothing about Shniberg's request.

Some of the CEOs of security firms that saw stock prices quintuple after the attacks used the opportunity to cash in stock options, significantly inflating their profits. Even as the towers burned, some gas station owners raised prices, hoping to bank profits in advance of a potential price increase.

Then there are the troubadours, who fall somewhere in between the intentional beneficiaries and the accidental ones.

Take Bruce Springsteen, whose Sept. 11-themed album The Rising reached No. 1 on Billboard's album chart and stood at No. 5 on the latest. Four spots down from Springsteen is Toby Keith's album Unleashed, which also reached No. 1, thanks largely to the angry, patriotic single "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."

Keith's publicist said proceeds from the single and record had not gone to charity.

Springsteen, who performed a concert with proceeds directed to the families who suffered losses on Sept. 11, is not sending any cash from the album to charities, at least none that he has publicly identified. He also has chosen not to respond to pointed criticism of the lack of philanthropy in New Jersey newspapers and on the nationally syndicated Imus in the Morning radio show. A publicist for Springsteen did not return calls asking whether he intends to devote some of the album's proceeds to charity.

As the anniversary approaches, many of those who have profited, or still hope to profit, share a few feelings: Surprise, even wonderment or bemusement, at their good fortune. Some feel conflicted about their newfound wealth, while others want only to use the events of that day and whatever fame they may have achieved to make a statement.

'The Singing Cop'

After the first tower came down, Rodriguez and his supervisor retreated to New York City Hall. A short time later, the second tower fell.

"Everyone started to run and I took two steps and just stopped. And there was a very real thought in my mind that those might be the last two steps I ever take," Rodriguez recalled last week during a telephone interview from Los Angeles before the tenor began a three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl. "All hell was breaking loose. But I decided to stay right there."

For the next week, he manned a temporary morgue near ground zero. Then everything changed.

On Sept. 23, he performed at "A Prayer for America," New York's mass memorial service at Yankee Stadium.

Though Rodriguez, 37, had for years sung the national anthem at various police functions and was known in the department as "The Singing Cop," he was unknown to most in the memorial service crowd. They were wowed by his voice, and he was dubbed "America's Tenor."

He received a call from opera star Placido Domingo and was invited to study with him in Washington. He was asked to perform at other memorials, public and private. He sang God Bless America at a World Series game, made numerous other national TV appearances and sang sad songs at what seemed like an endless string of funerals for fellow police officers.

And he signed a record contract.

By the beginning of the summer, Rodriguez, still on leave from NYPD, was able to earn as much in two or three nights as he did in a year as a cop. He commands as much as $30,000 per performance, though he charges far less for charity and certain other events.

"The money's really good," he said. "When it started, people would offer maybe $2,000, an honorarium, and I would say thanks and it was great. Then, when I signed the record contract, somebody said, 'You should get an agent.' "

Soon, his agent was turning down $5,000 deals. Though Rodriguez won't discuss his fees, he does not dispute reports that he is paid $10,000 to $30,000 per show, depending on the venue. Top ticket for his three nights at the Hollywood Bowl was $100.

Rodriguez, whose father Jose lives in Clearwater, bought a 19-foot Bayliner power boat, though he has been too busy to take it out back in New York. And there have been some other purchases: "I let my wife go nuts with the credit cards," he said.

He also has donated an undisclosed amount of his windfall to Community Mayors Inc., a New York charity that provides outings and entertainment to disabled children. He was working with the group long before Sept. 11.

Asked if he has any misgivings over how his fortunes have changed while 23 of his colleagues were among the more than 2,800 victims at the World Trade Center, he doesn't hesitate.

"This isn't something I thought would happen. I was discovered while singing at funerals for friends who died," Rodriguez said. "I don't feel conflicted at all."

The new G.I. Joe

Long before Sept. 11, Don Levine had an idea.

The Rhode Island resident, who had developed G.I. Joe for Hasbro Inc. in the 1960s, heard President Clinton speaking about the "real heroes" who had saved lives after the Oklahoma City bombing. Levine wondered whether kids might be interested in an action figure based on firefighters.

So he called the Fire Department in New York and asked for permission to model a "Real Hero" figure after an FDNY firefighter. As luck would have it, the department was opening a souvenir and education store called Fire Zone in Manhattan. Department officials were sold. The public wasn't.

"They were really just dribbling through," Levine said.

Then Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and their co-conspirators hijacked airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center. While most tried to run out, firefighters ran in.

Even as recovery workers searched for the bodies of the 343 firefighters who died that day, the action figures were flying off the shelves.

By Christmas, 4,000 had been sold at Fire Zone. Big retailers took notice.

As the anniversary approaches, they are ready at Target Stores, like the one at 8151 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. N in St. Petersburg's Gateway area.

At the end of a toy aisle, a large display implores shoppers to "Honor a Hero."

The shelves are lined with New York police and fire figures. There's a "fully poseable" NYPD officer with Kevlar vest ($24.99). Below it are a box set of FDNY and NYPD figures ($39.99). Finally, there is a scene featuring two firefighters who appear set to raise a flag on the remains of the World Trade Center. That costs $49.99 (Made in China).

The figures, which are also sold at Toys R Us, promise that $5 from each purchase will go to the FDNY Fire Safety Education Fund or the NYC Police Foundation Inc. Target and Levine's company have already delivered a check for $415,325 to the FDNY fund. Levine said he hoped to announce a second donation soon.

Still, a $5 donation from a $50 toy leaves a lot for Levine's company and Target to split.

"Look, we're happy we're able to donate this money," Levine said last week. "This is helping to make a difference."

Target representative Brie Heath declined to release sales figures for the Real Heroes, but said the chain decided to partner with Levine's company for a couple of reasons.

"We did it in response to 9/11 and children really viewing police officers and firefighters as heroes. Even more than before," Heath said. "It was a great opportunity to work with the manufacturer to give something back to the fire department."

Climbing the ladder

On June 20, New York firefighter Joe Finley stepped to the microphones in front of the firehouse for Engine 16, Ladder 7 and announced that he was running for Congress.

He made no bones about the fact that he wanted potential voters to know that he was one of the heroes.

"On Sept. 11, Americans counted on firefighters to do their jobs, and we did. ... Three hundred forty-three of my brothers were murdered. Nine men from my company are gone," Finley said. "There is an inconsolable wound in our hearts that will never heal."

Finley, who has applied for a disability retirement from the Fire Department because the dust from the World Trade Center damaged his lungs, has a large hill to climb. But he is making the most of his "firefighter" title as he tries to unseat first-term Democrat Steve Israel.

"Firefighters couldn't have a better advocate than another firefighter, and they couldn't have a stronger advocate than someone in the majority party," Finley told Newsday.

Finley is not the only firefighter in the race. The other, Lt. John Keenan, who still works in a firehouse in lower Manhattan, is running on the Green Party ticket and is considerably less inclined to use his full-time job as a boost to his candidacy.

"I'm running because I'd like to see a change in politics, not because I'm a firefighter," Keenan said. "Whether we would have had the tragedy on 9/11 or not, I probably would have run anyway."

Caught between the two firefighters is Israel, the incumbent. He won the seat two years ago, succeeding Republican Rick Lazio, who unsuccessfully ran for the Senate against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Israel, who has received an endorsement from the union representing fire officers, is careful not to criticize the motives of his challengers, particularly Finley's efforts to use his work on Sept. 11 as a campaign issue.

Instead, he focuses on his record and speaks of his admiration.

"Really, I don't find it a difficult position to be in," Israel said last week. "I respect both firefighters. I think voters join me in honoring and respecting what both firefighters did on 9/11, but they want to know what can be done for them in Congress. I'm going to focus on my record of specific accomplishment."

Meanwhile, Finley, a Republican, who declined to comment on his race, will have to be careful not to alienate voters by emphasizing Sept. 11, according to analysts.

"It's going to be a very tricky thing to exploit, 9/11," said Michael Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "People could say you are capitalizing on tragedy."

-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press and the Christian Science Monitor.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.