Amid heroism, mischief and deceit at World Trade Center disaster site

Monday, September 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Only hours after the World Trade Center was obliterated by terrorism, they were there.

One claimed her husband was a police officer who was sending distress signals from underneath the rubble. Another donned an ``ATF'' hat and demanded access to ground zero. Others appeared with dogs they said were trained to search for bodies, or hit up the elderly for donations.

All were frauds.

The twin tower tragedy has become a magnet for ghoulish mischief and deceit by people posing as investigators, fund-raisers and volunteers.

By the weekend, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik was so fed up with unauthorized forays into lower Manhattan that he cautioned New Yorkers, ``If you're not here as a worker at ground zero, you will be arrested for trespassing.''

The warning came the morning after a 24-year-old New Jersey woman dressed in surgical scrubs appeared at the crime scene, saying her husband had called on a cell phone to tell her he was buried alive with other police officers.

Rescuers flew into a frenzy. But authorities checked out her story and discovered a problem: The officer didn't exist. They quickly arrested her on reckless endangerment and other charges.

``She caused an extreme amount of panic and it was all fake,'' Kerik said. He called the woman ``a nut.''

The police blotter includes a television reporter accused of impersonating a federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent; a retired jail guard who allegedly tried to lift expensive watches from an abandoned shop; and a man caught looting a Brooks Brothers store where windows were blown out by the collapse.

The attack also has fueled hundreds of phony bomb threats and numerous bogus fund-raising solicitations for families of the victims. One watchdog group said e-mails from con artists seeking donations went out less than two hours after the airliners slammed into the towers.

Kerik said Sunday that a man and woman had been arrested when they sold flags and requested donations for a bogus charity.

``People have to be careful. There are people out there who will try to take advantage,'' Kerik said.

At the scene, police officers say they've turned away phony volunteer construction workers and rescue workers, some walking mutts masquerading as search dogs. Reporters later swarmed the impostors as they lied about the horrors hidden in the mountain of debris, the officers said.