Out of Thin Air

Inside a Lincoln Road office building sits a remarkable machine that could change the world

Imagine an eternal source of pure drinking water. A source from which the crystal-clear liquid would flow endlessly. A simple, portable source that would, on demand, produce life-giving water any time, virtually anywhere. A miracle.

It would be an answer to the prayers of millions worldwide who suffer and die for lack of clean drinking water. It would be a humanitarian blessing without precedent in the history of mankind. Some kind of magic.

Imagine that the water is created out of thin air. Literally. Not by sorcery or artifice but by a manmade device, the result of a scientific breakthrough of momentous consequence. Imagine that this astonishing machine actually exists, that it is available right now, that it could be put to immediate use in the service of countless thousands of tsunami victims in South Asia who desperately need fresh water.

Air Water CEO Michael Zwebner
Jonathan Postal
Air Water CEO Michael Zwebner

Now imagine that it can be found on the twelfth floor of an aging, slightly scruffy South Beach office building. Imagine that you can take the elevator up, walk through the doorway of Air Water Corporation, and see it for yourself. There it is. It all seems to be true. Or is it too good to be true?

Bob De Costa, for one, is a believer. On December 28, two days after Indonesia's devastating earthquake and tsunami, the 53-year-old salesman cut short his holiday vacation in Connecticut and returned to Air Water Corporation's world headquarters: suite 12-F of the Bank of America building at the corner of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue. He had expected to ring in 2005 with his wife at their home near Westport, but the tsunami disaster changed everything. Suddenly he had an urgent new assignment: Deliver his company's extraordinary water-producing machines to survivors of the South Asia catastrophe.

Instead of pitching the devices to prospective distributors as he normally does, De Costa found himself on the telephone desperately trying to contact international aid agencies and foreign embassies in Washington. He wanted to inform them, first, that Air Water had these amazing machines and, second, that the company was offering twenty of them -- free of charge -- to anyone involved in the tsunami relief effort.

Unbelievably, he wasn't having any luck. It was difficult enough just to connect with someone in a position of authority, but when he did, the response invariably was highly skeptical, even rude. "It was like: öHuh?'" he recalls. "We're trying to give stuff away. A couple of these people were just like: öWhat, are you kidding me?' I mean, they didn't even want to talk." On New Year's Eve he worked the phones all day and into the evening, hoping to hear back from CARE, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision -- any of the numerous agencies and embassies he'd been calling.

As De Costa grappled with the frustration of being ignored or flatly rejected, Air Water founder and CEO Michael Zwebner was approaching the tsunami campaign from a different angle. In his room at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, he put the final touches on a press release and e-mailed it to Rolando Sablon, his 32-year-old general manager, who works with De Costa at the Lincoln Road headquarters. Sablon added some polish, then forwarded it to Market Wire, a Los Angeles company that, for a fee, distributes corporate news releases via the Associated Press global wire service.

Zwebner's announcement hit the wires at 9:34 a.m. on Monday, January 3. It read: "Following a personal telephone conversation with Sri Lankan Prime Minister, his Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Colombo, and responding to an emergency request, the company will immediately ship twenty Air Water machines to Sri Lanka for deployment in areas stricken by the recent tsunami."

The press release generated no news in the United States, but Zwebner was undeterred. He proceeded apace with daily dispatches to Market Wire.

January 4: Zwebner donates $25,000 to "the Air Water machines fund" to help send the equipment to tsunami survivors.

January 5: Air Water launches a "worldwide appeal for funding" to help the company donate "an unlimited amount of Air Water machines to areas affected by the recent tsunami." The company Website will accept donations through PayPal.

January 6: Sri Lanka's ambassador to Israel visits "the Air Water production facility in Israel," samples the water from the machines, and "approves water taste and quality." Three machines -- each purportedly capable of producing at least 500 liters (132 gallons) of water per day -- would soon be heading to a "food camp" in Sri Lanka operated by IsraAID, a nongovernmental Israeli relief group.

On January 11, Zwebner's publicity blitz got traction. The Jerusalem Post ran a story on the IsraAID mission and mentioned that Air Water had donated three machines "providing seventeen liters per day."

Seventeen liters?

Zwebner nearly came unglued. He quickly shot back a stern e-mail to the Post reporter: Air Water had also donated two smaller machines, for a total of five capable of producing up to 2000 liters daily. And the value of the donation was "between $100,000 and $200,000, making us possibly the single largest aid donor from an Israeli operation." That last might have been a stretch. According to the company's price list, an Air Water 500-liter model costs between $16,000 and $22,000; five of them would be worth no more than $110,000.

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