NJ residents frustrated over 9/11 victims fund

AP News
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Posted: Jul 28, 2011 10:12 PM
NJ residents frustrated over 9/11 victims fund

The head of a fund for people injured in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center explained Thursday how they could be eligible for compensation but got an earful from those who said the limitations are too restrictive and seem engineered by detached lawmakers in Washington.

Sheila Birnbaum, the New York attorney charged with administering the fund, addressed about 50 first responders and others at a town hall meeting in City Hall two days after a federal review found insufficient evidence linking cancer to Sept. 11 to warrant adding cancer to the list of conditions covered.

The swelling debate over whether cancer and other illnesses should merit compensation from the fund underscores the delicate and emotionally charged issue of how victims prove their injuries were caused by the 2001 attacks.

Birnbaum, the fund's special master, said she was "representing the victims" at the town hall meeting in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from ground zero.

"If you have a problem, you can take it up with Congress," she said. "That's what we have to deal with it."

Congress originally established a fund in December 2001, doling out $1 billion to the injured and $6 billion to the families of victims. But that program closed in 2003, leaving those whose injuries materialized years later without the ability to benefit.

Last year, Congress authorized the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which reopened the program and allocated almost $2.8 billion to fund it. A draft version of the new rules was released in June and will be finalized in the fall before the program starts accepting applications.

As outlined, the fund extends the time period when a victim had to have been in the area to be eligible to May 2002, eight months after the attacks. It includes a list of conditions presumptively assumed to be linked to the aftermath of the attacks, including lung disease, asthma and carpel tunnel syndrome. It also widens the geographic area a claimant had to be in.

But that area is still confined to a portion of Manhattan, meaning those who say toxic dust from the destroyed twin towers traveled from ground zero over the Hudson River to Jersey City and other communities will not be eligible.

Birnbaum said there simply wasn't the scientific evidence to prove injuries sustained outside New York City were caused by the attacks.

"We can't say it did, we can't say it didn't," Birnbaum said _ the same rationale used to explain why cancer was not being included.

That may disqualify Joann Sullivan, a 40-year-old who was working at a Jersey City bar in September 2001 and said she aided survivors as they returned from the World Trade Center to New Jersey, picking up contamination as she doled out water and food to those in crisis.

"I felt that it was my job as an American to do what we had to do," she said.

Sullivan said she later developed an inflammatory lung condition called pulmonary sarcoidosis, rashes and a fever _ all of which she attributes to 9/11. She said she lost two jobs because of the dozens of legions that visibly marked her body.

Anyone is free to file a claim, but those who don't fall within the restrictions may be denied, Birnbaum said. She also noted that the funds provided by Congress are limited and no provision exists to augment them. And only $875 million can be paid out in the first five years of the program, expected to run until 2016 or 2017.

Thursday's town hall was one of a series Birnbaum has scheduled, but it's the only one in New Jersey, which lost almost 700 residents among the nearly 3,000 people who perished in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On Wednesday, Birnbaum addressed participants in New York, who expressed similar frustration over the exclusion of cancer from the list of covered illnesses. A third town hall will be held Tuesday in Melville, N.Y.

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Reach Josh Lederman at http://www.twitter.com/joshledermanAP.