RAY SUAREZ: Midnight tonight is the deadline for applications to the Sept. 11 victims compensation fund. We get an update now from the program's special master, Kenneth Feinberg. Welcome back to the program.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: We're now in the last handful of hours. Are you still getting applications at this point?
KENNETH FEINBERG: Right up to this moment. We now have about 2,750 applications for death claims, that's about 93 percent of all eligible families. And we've also have about 3,300 injury claims. So we have almost 6,000 claims in the fund.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, you've said, certainly in the past couple months that you had wanted to get that number as high as possible. Why was it important to you to get that total over 90 percent?
KENNETH FEINBERG: I want the Congress to be vindicated for passing the law, I wanted to try and make sure that as many families as possible benefited from what Congress did and what the administration has been supporting. I realized that the lawsuit route, as an alternative, would be unsuccessful, at least very, very protracted and uncertain, and I just was worried that many families in grief would not file, and we made every effort, successfully, thank goodness, to get those families into the program.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there was a point well into this two plus-year window when still fewer than half the affected families had filed and you hit the road and started to do sort of one-on-one marketing. What did you tell them, and did it work?
KENNETH FEINBERG: I told them that the date was approaching, I told them that it was extremely unlikely that Congress or the administration would extend the date of the program, the deadline. I also asked families that had already been in the fund, received their awards, been satisfied with the way the program worked, to go back home and tell neighbors and friends and relatives, do not let this program expire without your filing. And I think all of these factors came into play, and it worked.
RAY SUAREZ: Early on, you were pretty confident about the rough justice, the overall justice of the way this thing had been structured. As time wore on, as you saw individual cases and got a more fine grained understanding of what the payouts would be, were you just as confident, today, are you just as confident that this was the way to do it?
KENNETH FEINBERG: Absolutely. The most important element for me was to make sure from day one that the program was applied consistently, so that bankers and stockbrokers or busboys or dishwashers or waiters, whatever their station in life, that each individual family got a fair shake, and that no one get an advantage because of bias or whether they had a great lawyer or no lawyer. That was very, very important to me and to the members of the staff. And I think we've done that just as we knew we had to, if the program was to be perceived as fair.
RAY SUAREZ: So what ended up being the sort of swath of paths, what was the range in money that was paid out in individual cases?
KENNETH FEINBERG: The range in death cases ranges from a low of $250,000 to a high of almost $7 million. But the two figures to really focus on, the average payment, tax-free, for a death claim, is about $1.8 million. A more important number, I think, that tells you a lot about the fund and how it works, is the median award, half the people got more, half the people got less. That's about 1.5 million. In other words, I tried to exercise my discretion fairly to bring down the high end awards, bring up the low end awards, to try and have relative narrow gap between the high and the low, and I think we did that.
RAY SUAREZ: There was some gray area cases that presented some interesting challenges, for instance a lot of people who worked in that area were here in the country and working illegally -- not the kind of people who would find it easy to put together a paper trail for your application process.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Very difficult, they're all eligibility, I thank the attorney general of the United States and INS, they issued a ruling that those folks, like everybody else, the families were eligible, foreign claimants eligible -- how we locate those people, with applications in Spanish and in foreign, other foreign languages, how we reached out to them to give them a comfort level that they would not be deported, that the families would not be imprisoned or sanctioned, and as of today we have just about all of them in the fund.
RAY SUAREZ: Was there an evolutionary process for you in learning how to deal with the families and learning how to deal with what was brought up to the surface by the very act of filing? Was there something that you didn't understand about this very well, in October of 2001 that you understand better now?
KENNETH FEINBERG: I think so. I underestimated the raw emotion at the outset. The, I was the visible figure, the target for all the family frustration, anger and disappointment. And I learned as the program evolved the importance of dealing with individual families. These group meetings were valuable to promote the program. But where we really made progress, as I said earlier, Ray, is when we went and met with individual families, processed their claim, and then those families could go back into the community and tout the benefits of the program.
RAY SUAREZ: At this point, some people still have made public and made clear to you their intention to use the courts instead of using this congressionally mandated payout process. One consistent argument is that nobody gets blamed, nobody has to say I was wrong or I did a wrong thing if they use the special masters program. And these people want something more than just the money, it appears.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Oh, I think that's right. I haven't had any family tell me if they've decided to sue the airlines, none of them say it's the money. They say we want accountability. We want to find out in a lawsuit who is to blame for 9/11. I tell those families, with all due respect, you're not going to get that answer in a lawsuit. There is an independent commission, there are House and Senate Intelligence committees, that is where there will be answers to who is to blame and the allocation of blame, if any, in this whole 9/11 situation. I also tell them, by the way, that if you really think a lawsuit is going to give you those answers, there are 73 people suing, they'll get the answers, you don't have to be the 74th, and you would be well advised in my opinion to come into the fund, but the lawsuit route has not been accepted by more than, as you say, a handful of people.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, if you haven't filed up until this moment, you don't have to have a completed application ready by midnight, do you?
KENNETH FEINBERG: You certainly don't. I will take by midnight tonight just about anything in the way of an intention to file. The first few pages of the application form, just send in, faxed to me, just send in the name and address, the name of the victim, the claim, and for purposes of beating the deadline, we will bend over backwards to accept your claim in a timely fashion.
RAY SUAREZ: But even with all the efforts you've made, do you expect that there are going to be some people who wake up tomorrow morning and that's just it for them?
KENNETH FEINBERG: That's the frustration. There will be some people, fortunately a very few, they didn't sue, they didn't come into the fund, they are paralyzed with grief or fear, they do nothing. Fortunately after two years doing this, we've got that down to a very small narrow group of people, and we will try and get them in right up until midnight tonight, all our offices are open all over the country. And we'll stay open until midnight.
RAY SUAREZ: And very quickly, an assessment program begins, I guess starting tomorrow of how this all worked?
KENNETH FEINBERG: This program, unprecedented and unique as it may be, I've learned two things. Only in America, only in America could there ever be a program like this, and this program was a justifiable compassionate and generous response by the American people to this horror. And I think it's as important for the American people as it is for the individual families who are benefiting under the program.
RAY SUAREZ: Kenneth Feinberg, thanks for joining us.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Thank you very much.