NEW YORK -- Nearly half the victims eligible to apply for federal money under the Sept. 11 compensation fund have not filed claims for the program, which ends this year.
Out of an estimated 3,000 eligible participants, 1,719 people have applied for the fund, created shortly after the terrorist attacks to protect airlines and other agencies from being bombarded with lawsuits. Those who receive checks, which average $1.4 million per victim, give up their right to sue.
During a recent discussion with the New York City Bar Association, Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator who determines the amount of each award, listed several theories for the low number of applications, which must be filed by Dec. 22, two years after the fund was created.
He said some potential applicants are debilitated by grief. Others are waiting to see how similar cases are handled so they can better argue their award amounts. Some are procrastinating, he said.
Victor Colaio, who lost two sons in the World Trade Center attack, is among many trying to decide whether the fund is a good option for victims who were high earners. He is one of 10 victims' relatives whose lawsuits against Feinberg were tossed out this month by a judge who disagreed with their claim that he was being unfair to high earners.
Feinberg has said there is no cap on award amounts, but many families contend there appears to be an unofficial limit that makes the fund unfair for top earners.
Feinberg bases award amounts on the victim's projected lifetime income plus variables like number of children, minus money from other sources like life insurance.
Colaio and others complain that a $5 million or $6 million award doesn't fairly compensate those who were young and already making millions when they died.
"Our son was making quite a bit of money, in the millions, and to give him only less than a year's salary, that doesn't feel right," Colaio said. He plans to meet with Feinberg for a preview of what his amount could be, a right guaranteed to all applicants.
Feinberg, a Washington lawyer appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, said the largest death award so far was $6 million. Checks for the injured range from $500 to $6.8 million, awarded to a man burned over 85 percent of his body in the Pentagon attack.
As soon as Feinberg took on the Sept. 11 job, grief-stricken families began criticizing him, calling him stingy, cold, unwilling to listen. Some followed him to public appearances, most complaining that his formula kept awards too low.
Among those who appeared often was Charles Wolf, whose wife was killed in the trade center attack. Wolf was so discouraged with the fund that he created a Web site, fixthefund.org, that detailed his complaints.
But when Wolf stood up to speak at Feinberg's appearance last week, he clearly stunned Feinberg by comparing their relationship with a fine wine that has "mellowed with age."
Jacqui Eaton, whose husband worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, is waiting to see how Feinberg decides similar cases before she applies.
"What our government did was a really stand-up thing in the wake of such a horrible event -- I just hope that he does what they intend, to make up for the economic loss," Eaton said.
On the Net:
The fund: www.usdoj.gov/victimcompensation/