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Late surge puts most families in 9/11 compensation fund

From Phil Hirschkorn

Kathy Trant:
Kathy Trant: "I could never forget the love of my life, but I have to move on."

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CNN's Adaora Udoji reports on the dilemma that the 9-11 fund poses for some victims' survivors.
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September 11 attacks
Acts of terror

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Hundreds of families came forward in the final days before the deadline to register for the unprecedented government compensation offered as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As of the midnight Monday deadline, a total of 2,823 death claims, representing 95 percent of the eligible families, were filed with the Victims Compensation Fund, said Camille Biros, a fund spokeswoman.

In the past week alone, more than 550 families applied for the tax-free, lump sum awards, which have averaged $1.8 million per death claim.

Dozens of claims were brought into fund offices Monday in New York, Washington, New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts, which remained open right until the deadline.

In addition, a total of 3,517 claims for injuries have been received, Biros said.

The totals are not final, since they do not reflect applications that were mailed or picked up by couriers on Monday.

Still, the numbers reflect a massive turnaround in the popularity of the fund, which had drawn applications from fewer than half of the eligible families as recently as the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

The majority of the families who applied did so in the last quarter of the year: 156 in September, 200 in October, 343 in November and at least 851 in December.

Congress and President Bush created the fund two weeks after the attacks in an effort to shield the hijacked airlines from potentially bankrupting civil lawsuits.

Families who applied had to surrender their right to sue American and United Airlines, which each saw two of their planes crashed -- into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, after a passenger uprising, a field in Pennsylvania, killing a total of 2,976 people on the planes, in the buildings, or on the ground.

The airlines are additionally protected by a $1.5 billion cap on damages per airplane.

Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg repeatedly advised that, from an economic standpoint, the fund was a wiser path than seeking damages in court.

"The idea of coming into the fund and getting a check in 60 to 90 days rather than litigate against the airlines or the World Trade Center for a decade or more I think is obvious," Feinberg said.

In the end, over 97 percent of the trade center families joined the fund.

By comparison, 70 percent, or 129 of 184, Pentagon families signed up, and only 30 percent, or 12 of 40, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, families did.

Plaintiffs' attorneys have said the Pentagon and Shanksville families would have stronger wrongful death claims against the airlines and would be impacted less by the legislative cap on damages per airplane.

To date, more than a thousand September 11 victims' families have already received a total of $1.6 billion in fund payouts ranging from $250,000 to $6.8 million, according to Feinberg's office.

Kathy Trant, who has received her payment, decided to enter the fund after her husband, Dan, a 40-year-old bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the trade center's north tower, was killed along with 657 co-workers on September 11, leaving her alone to parent three young children.

"I could never forget the love of my life, but I have to move on. I have to find some happiness in my life, and this is enabling me to let my children play tennis still and do basketball and live the lifestyle I lived before my husband was murdered," Trant said.

With the help of attorneys working pro bono, Trant assembled family photos and a 2-inch-thick stack of documents, including her marriage license and her husband's death certificate, for her submission.

"They took every aspect of my life into consideration and they were very, very fair, I believe," she said.

Charles Wolf, a Manhattan direct marketing entrepreneur whose wife Katherine, 40, began working for Marsh & McLennan on the 97th floor of the north tower just five days before the trade center attack, initially didn't want to enter the fund, citing criticism of Feinberg's personal skills, a point that alienated many families.

"Ken had no bedside manner whatsoever," Wolf said. "Things have changed drastically."

Monica Gabrielle says she won't give up her right
Monica Gabrielle says she won't give up her right "to answers and accountability."

But for some families looking for answers, the September 11th Commission, congressional and other investigations are insufficient .

Monica Gabrielle, widowed on September 11, believes suing the airlines and others responsible for airport security is the best avenue to find out who was responsible for lapses that may have contributed to the attacks.

"Going into the fund and signing on the dotted line is not going to bring my husband back," she said. "Whether it's 1.5 million, 7 million, or 200 thousand dollars, you sign away your right to answers and accountability, and I will not do that."

Her high school sweetheart and husband of 28 years, Richard, 52, was an insurance broker for AON Corp. on the 102nd floor of the trade center's south tower, the second one hit.

Gabrielle is among 73 families who are plaintiffs in a consolidated negligence suit pending in Manhattan federal court.

"I live with this every day on a personal level," she said. "Whether it's dragged out in a court case or not, it's not going to change anything."

CNN's Adora Udoji contributed to this report.

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