When William Rodriguez was a young man, the Amazing Randi hired him as an assistant--but not for help with his magic act. Randi enlisted Roudy, the aspiring magician's stage name in his native Puerto Rico, in his cause: exposing faith healers and psychics. Rodriguez, as Benjamin Smith explained in a New York Sun article, proved adroit at insinuating himself into the good graces of Randi's targets and eliciting incriminating information.
Two decades later Rodriguez's life has come full circle and once again he's taken on the task of unmasking what he sees as the truth behind a spectacle. This time it's the grand opera that was 9/11--along with its libretto, the 9/11 Commission Report. Yes, Rodriguez is among the legions that question its conclusions. But before attempting to transform himself into a truthteller, Rodriguez had established his credentials with a fearsome display of physical courage.
We're a nation that can no longer agree on who qualifies as a hero. Because of our questionable motives for undertaking recent wars, progressives won't countenance those who shine in combat. Conservatives, meanwhile, disdain do-gooders for enabling neediness in the needy. However, while 9/11 may have deprived us of our innocence, it at least provided us with consensus heroes, such as the first responders.
Less likely to be lionized, either because he survived or because he's Latino stands William Rodriguez. A custodian at the World Trade Center, Rodriguez shepherded a number of those who worked there out of the basement. Also, accompanying firefighters up the stairs, he unlocked doors for them until they turned him back. He may, in fact, have been the last man out of the North Tower.
However, not content to bask in his 9/11 hero status, he had to go and muddle matters by morphing into a gadfly. Still, whether in spite of or because of the twin sets of tracks on which his courage travels, Rodriguez stands poised to break out in 2006.
An eloquent man with an outsized personality, he recently completed a European tour of speaking engagements in Europe. Back home, Emmy-winning Irish documentary maker Pat O'Mahony ("Reporters at War") has pitched HBO about making a documentary about him. Another film, entitled "The Keymaster," by Mario Diaz, is slated for a fall 2006 release by Brooklyn's Cinemar Films. Also, already his de facto biographer, Greg Szymanksi of The American Free Press is writing a book about him.
After emigrating from Puerto Rico, where he'd been featured on TV escaping from a chained straight jacket while hanging from a burning rope, Rodriguez found himself a small fish in the big pond of New York magicians. While struggling to catch on, he took a day job as a custodian at the World Trade Center.
But when his responsibilities expanded to not only caring for the office Governor Cuomo kept at WTC, but organizing his press conferences, his show biz aspirations fell by the wayside. After Cuomo left office, keeping the staircases of the North Tower clean became Rodriguez's new assignment. While a less-challenging job, in retrospect, it paved the way for what life had in store for him next.
Szymanski describes how Rodriguez usually clocked in at eight a.m. and rode an elevator to the 106th floor, where Latino employees of Windows on the World fed him a free breakfast. On 9/11, however, he was a half hour late. While checking in at an office on sub-level one, he heard and felt, along with 20 others, a massive explosion--from below. Seconds later, he heard another--from above (Flight 11).
While Rodriguez was wondering if the first explosion was an electrical generator, a co-worker burst into the office covered with third-degree burns he suffered when flames burst from an elevator shaft. After helping him out of the building, Rodriguez returned and pulled out two men trapped in an elevator shaft filling with water from the sprinkler system. He led them and others to safety.
Then, wielding a master key, he ascended the stairs with the struggling firemen and unlocked doors (every fourth floor) that were equipped with locks. As he climbed from the twentieth to the thirtieth floors, he heard yet more explosive sounds. They also resounded from the South Tower when, turned back at the thirty-ninth floor, he descended and, for the last time, exited the North Tower.
When it began to collapse, Rodriguez took refuge under a car. Once safe, he was interviewed by CNN and became the designated Spanish-speaking eyewitness for Spanish TV like Telemundo and Univision and newspapers like Hoy and El Diario. When the families of Spanish victims who'd seen him on TV later reached out to him, he was driven by frustration over his inability to reach his Windows of the World friends to help.
Rodriguez soon established the Hispanic Victims Group and helped secure an amnesty for undocumented Hispanic workers who perished. Their families were thus able to apply for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund--with Rodriguez translating and helping them fill out the intimidating forms.
Confident the explosions he'd heard on 9/11 would get their day in court, Rodriguez had no qualms about being honored at the White House and posed for a picture with Bush. What then made him later do an about-face and step forward with concerns that the administration's negligence in dealing with terrorists may have crossed the line to enabling them?
First Rodriguez watched as his interviews edited by the English-speaking (but not the Spanish-speaking) media. After all, since he'd been one of those pushing for the creation of the 9/11 Commission along with the Jersey Girls, he looked forward to his appearance at a closed-door hearing. "Up to that moment," Rodriguez told us, "I was thinking that they were going to do the right thing."
But when the commission didn't answer his questions and avoided the issues he was presenting, "it raised flags." Then, when he realized the administration was using 9/11 as one of the pretexts for invading Iraq, he felt "manipulated and used."
Rodriguez also sought out the National Institute of Safety and Technology, which was investigating the collapse of the WTC, but was rebuffed. Neither was the FBI interested in his contention that he'd encountered one of the hijackers casing out the buildings several months before 9/11.
"You have two options," Rodriguez declares. "Stand for the truth or be part of the game. I didn't want to be part of the game."
Not only wasn't Rodriguez playing the game, but, like 9/11 widow Ellen Mariani, he signed on with lawyer Phil Berg to file a suit against the entire administration. The government normally uses the RICO Act to nail organized crime as a conspiracy. However, in a daring display of turnabout-is-fair-play, Berg accused the government of conspiring against the people.
Then, when the government filed a motion to dismiss, or at least transfer, the case on grounds of national security, Berg filed an affidavit that goes beyond the usual aggressive legalese, races past bold, and flies off into the realm of courting disaster.
It alleges that the defendants "had knowledge that the attacks were impending... but they failed to [take countermeasures], not by reason of mere negligence, confusion, or ineptitude, but because they affirmatively desired such attacks to occur [author's italics]." The progress of the case, which awaits discovery and depositions, can be followed at 911fortheTruth.com. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is spokesman for Reopen911.org.
When asked if he ever dreamt he'd become what some might call a conspiracy theorist, Rodriguez replied, "I never expected to be in the middle of this whole thing." In his travels he's heard what he calls, "really far-out theories, crazy." He explains that some become involved "just because of the theory." He's content to present his experience "exactly like I presented it to the 9/11 Commission and let the people draw their own conclusions."
Nevertheless, we tried to lure him into theorizing about his description of loud sounds he heard from the floor above while on the thirty-third floor. They sounded to him "like a dumpster with steel wheels scratching a bare cement floor."
"I was like," Rodriguez says, "'Oh my God, that's an empty floor, what's going on?'" No construction had been underway and, in fact, a special access key was needed to make an elevator stop at that floor. Fearing "somebody was there with a gun or something," he bypassed the floor.
But he stands by his vow: "I won't speculate because I'm not a theorist." However, it's surprising that the more, uh, creative minds of the 9/11 Truth Movement haven't latched onto the thirty-fourth floor. It could be positioned as both controlled-demolition-central and a munitions dump, where the largest bombs awaited detonation by a suicide crew manning the floor.
Still, in a picturesque analogy, Rodriguez concedes that the administration and 9/11 Commission "are giving you a whole recipe and soup, but in reality the stock inside is totally different from what you expected."
The media-savvy Rodriguez is careful to avoid being lumped in with those who believe passengers were spirited away pre-flight, the planes guided to their destinations by remote control. It's apparent, however, that he and Berg tacitly support the controlled demolition scenario.
On April 5, 2005, the National Institute of Safety and Technology finally issued its report, "NIST Response to the World Trade Center Disaster." To summarize, it concluded that the impact of the jets and intense fire weakened structural components, damaging fireproofing materials. The buckling that ensued allowed the upper floors to pancake onto the floors below.
The NIST report, of course, has taken some mighty salvos. Former Bush administration Department of Labor economist Morgan Reynolds's famous article for LewRockwell.com--"Why Did the Trade Center Skyscrapers Collapse?"--is chock full of rebuttals. It's as comprehensive, in fact, as an oft-cited March 2005 Popular Mechanics article debunking alternate theories is sketchy.
Reynolds calls the government's collapse "theory," as he termed it, "highly vulnerable [in] its blinkered narrowness and lack of breadth [compared to] its principal scientific rival--controlled demolition."
Even more devastating to the empirical-minded is the paper recently presented by Steven E. Jones, a physics professor at Brigham Young University. Regarding the collapse of the three WTC buildings, he writes that, "as upper-falling floors strike lower floors--and intact steel support columns--the fall must be significantly impeded by the impacted mass." In other words, not only was the collapse "in-their-footprints," but way too fast.
Between Reynolds and the experts he cites and Jones, it's as if scientists and engineers are putting their foot down. "If you wanted us to remain quiet for the nation's well-being," they seem to be saying, "you should have seen to it that whoever pulled this off resisted the expert's natural impulse to make it look like a piece of cake."
Meanwhile, reporters and commentators, concerned Rodriguez antagonized people in high places, advised him to back off. As if to lend credence to them, his apartment was broken into and, among other things, his laptop was stolen. It failed to scare Rodriguez, however, because he feels that by all rights he should have died on 9/11 and is now living on borrowed time.
"I'm alive because of the miracle," he says. "This is a second chance. The William Rodriguez who was here before 9/11 has disappeared completely. Gone, gone."
As for his future, Rodriguez declares that "my mission is to help as many people as possible. I have a big sign on the wall in front of my bed that I wrote on 9/11. It's been there ever since and it says, 'Who did you help today?' It just gives me the motivation... to pick up the phone and call someone." He maintains that he's become addicted to helping. "It's an addiction. It really is."
Rodriguez has also assisted victims, and their families, of the Madrid bombings, as well as the Paraguay supermarket fire, in which 399 died. In the latter instance, he appointed a contact person and helped raise funds and set up rallies. "Once [they're] organized I gave them the tools so they become activists to change the laws in terms of building construction, fire regulations, prosecution of the people who locked the [supermarket] doors. All the pressure points."
At times, Rodriguez seems too good to be true. Losing himself in service, he neglected his own needs and, briefly homeless, actually lived out of his car. Most telling though was his refusal to submit an application to the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.
A cynic might maintain that he was reserving the right to the lawsuit Berg subsequently filed on his behalf. But Rodriguez had to know, as Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the 9/11 Victims Fund, made clear in his book, What is Life Worth? (Public Affairs, 2005), that those who opted out of the fund to file suit on their own had little chance of a substantial financial settlement.
To indulge in armchair psychoanalysis, Rodriguez's self-denial makes him look like a martyr who's thrown himself on the funeral pyre of survivor guilt. Of course, this does nothing to diminish what he's done.
It's more apparent than ever how much the public, consciously or unconsciously, fears being smeared with the dreaded conspiracy-theorist label. Even a glancing acknowledgment that the administration not only nonchalanted warnings about 9/11, but actually turned a blind eye to incipient terrorism, is out of the question. However, our reluctance to conceive of the inconceivable only reveals our ignorance of history.
In writing Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (Free Press, 2001), Robert Stinnett used the Freedom of Information Act to dredge up documents from World War II that go a long way toward proving a thesis long suspected. You know--the one in which Franklin Roosevelt, to galvanize an isolationist nation behind an undeniable threat, both provoked the Japanese and refrained from mobilizing defenses despite knowledge of the attack.
Should there be any truth to the charge the administration greased the wheels for 9/11, it would be ironic. The Neocons, of course, profess to despise Roosevelt and everything he stood for. But according to this scenario, they used a page out of his playbook.
Their repudiation of him would then be but a smokescreen. But one with a spot threadbare enough to glimpse the Project for a New Century's famous statement that what was needed to rally the nation around their program was a "new Pearl Harbor."
Culpable or not, if this is what 9/11 represented to the administration, how, we asked Rodriguez, would he describe 9/11 to a child? He responded without hesitating.
"I was a magician for thirty years... It is very easy to do misdirection, to make you look into one place while you're doing the magic with the other hand." He's obviously inferring that in plain sight, the planes struck; out of sight, bombs exploded. "It's just a big magic trick," Rodriguez concludes. "It's an illusion."
Guess it would take an illusionist to know one.