9/11 victim fund chief set to hand out $2.8 billion

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 09, 2011 3:14 PM
9/11 victim fund chief set to hand out $2.8 billion

By Noeleen Walder

NEW YORK (Reuters) - On an evening in late July, Sheila Birnbaum stood before a room full of firefighters and police officers in New York City's borough of Queens and announced, "I'm going to be affecting your life."

It was less a boast than a statement of fact. Nearly 10 years after the September 11 attacks, Birnbaum was tapped by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to run the second 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

A first compensation fund handed out more than $7 billion to families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the attacks.

The new fund will distribute $2.8 billion provided by the U.S. Congress to compensate police, fire and emergency workers, local residents and others who suffered illnesses related to exposure to the 9/11 disaster sites following the attacks or in debris removal.

Birnbaum, a 71-year-old partner at a high-powered corporate law firm and a lifelong New Yorker, got an earful at the Queens event, one of several town-hall style meetings she scheduled after being named in May to head the fund.

Cancer does not appear on the list of diseases for which a person can claim compensation from the fund.

"I just think this was an injustice," John Marshall, a 52-year-old retired police officer who was at the Ground Zero disaster site in New York and who now uses a breathing tube since developing throat cancer, told Birnbaum. "Stop looking at us through a microscope and look at us as people."

A toxic cloud of dust was unleashed by the collapse of the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York after they were struck by hijacked airliners, and debris removal workers later shifted through the Ground Zero wreckage. The new fund will provide money for people who later developed illnesses, such as lung disease and certain musculoskeletal disorders.

The other 9/11 disaster sites are the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

'THEY HAVE FELT ABANDONED'

In an interview at her office at the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Birnbaum said emotions surrounding September 11 are as raw today as they were a decade ago for many police, firefighters, emergency workers and local residents.

"And in fact, sometimes even more so because they have felt abandoned along the way," she said.

Birnbaum, known her pragmatic approach, said she does not take the anger personally. "I understand that it's directed to 'government,' and I'm the representative standing up there," she said. "If there was someone else standing up there, the anger would be directed to them."

Birnbaum said she will spend "as much time as it takes" to oversee the fund -- up to seven years, by her estimate.

Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the first victim compensation fund, said Birnbaum's experience -- she served as a mediator in September 11-related litigation -- made her a "natural choice" to oversee the new fund. "I can't think of anybody more qualified to do it," he said in an interview.

Birnbaum faces obstacles that Feinberg did not.

She is working with less money, and with potentially more applicants seeking a piece of it. Applications to the fund begin on October 3. Birnbaum said she does not know how many people will file claims.

Birnbaum will be making payments not for easily verifiable deaths, but for illnesses whose link to Ground Zero exposure may be tenuous. In July, a scientific advisory panel failed to find sufficient evidence tying specific cancer cases directly to the dust and chemicals at the disaster sites.

Birnbaum said working as a mediator to settle dozens of wrongful-death suits filed after the attacks taught her a lot.

"I met with many of the families, often more than once. I learned about the emotional pull that 9/11 has on people that were lost or injured in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, in Shanksville. And I think those experiences have made me more understanding of what people are going through," she said.

"I think people need to be a little patient with regard to the issues of cancer until we get some more information. This program is open for five years. And I know people have been waiting for a long time," Birnbaum said.

"But we need to have the evidence that gives us the ability to compensate for certain injuries that are now not part of the compensation because if we don't do it right, then Congress is going to be critical of what we did."

Feinberg said that to be effective Birnbaum will need to be many things to many people. He said, "She has to be able to be Mother Superior, as well as a lawyer, as well as an accountant, as well as politician, as well as a psychiatrist."

(Additional reporting by Jessica Dye and Joseph Ax; Editing by Jesse Wegman and Will Dunham)