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Families of Sept. 11 Victims Reluctant to Collect from US Compensation Fund - 2002-06-26

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed the September 11 Victim's Compensation Fund into law. The fund allocates more than $4 billion to survivors of the attacks, and to the families of those lost. But nine months later, only a relatively small number of people have signed up to collect.

The act authorizes compensation to any individual, or representatives of an individual physically injured or killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

On average, families will receive payments of approximately $1.5 million each. Officials have heralded the plan as straightforward and generous but so far, only about 10 families have filed completed applications.

Christy Ferer, who is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's liaison to victim's families, said the failure to tap into the fund is largely due to the cumbersome process of applying for it.

"Practically, more than anything else, it is practical issues with the Victim's Compensation Fund that has weighted down the rate of entry into it," she explained. "It is a 30-page form, and it is a long haul to fill all that stuff out. I think people are also taking a 'wait-and-see' attitude."

Ms. Ferer says that, as soon as a few more people apply and receive compensation, the rest will follow fast on their heels.

Kenneth Feinberg, who oversees the fund for the Justice Department, agrees with Ms. Ferer. "It is an entirely unprecedented process," he said. "There's never been anything like this in the United States or anywhere else. And I think people are naturally reluctant to jump into the water without knowing how deep the pool is."

Families who lost loved ones are expected to receive a minimum of $250,000 for "anguish and loss" and thousands, or perhaps millions more for economic losses.

Mr. Feinberg says a wider application of the fund is being considered, one that will include victims of other terrorist attacks. "In Congress," he said, "there is an effort to add to my program Oklahoma City and the African embassy bombings, and the first World Trade Center attack in 1993."

Mr. Feinberg says that although only a handful of complete applications have been submitted, more than 500 applications are already partially filed. He says many more potential recipients are currently in the process of filling out the forms.

Like Ms. Ferer, he stresses that the application is complicated, requiring a lot of corroborative documentation, and is therefore time-consuming. Also, some survivors and victims' families may still be planning to file lawsuits against the federal government, an option which will not be open to those who accept the Victim's Compensation Fund.

Still, in his opinion, the fund is already a successful vehicle for compensation. "I am not overly concerned," he said. "To me, the real litmus test of this program is the fact that, to date, only four people have decided to sue instead of coming into the program. That tells me that, at the end of the day, there will be overwhelming support for the program."

But for the people who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, overwhelming support for the program may be difficult to muster. Debra Calandrillo lost her husband of 21 years when the World Trade Center collapsed. She has attended meetings designed to help applicants navigate the application process, but is having trouble moving forward.

"I sit there, and I just cry," said Mrs. Calandrillo. "Because that money brings no joy. I have not even opened the packet, I have not filled out the forms. It is like putting a price on his head, and I just cannot do that."

Families have until December 31, 2003 to make their claims.