GWEN IFILL: Betty Ann Bowser has the update on the 9/11 compensation fund.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Monica Gabrielle spends a lot of time in her New York City apartment on the Internet, looking for answers, and she spends a lot of time with her lawyer looking for the guilty. But most of all, Gabrielle spends a lot of time just being angry. Her childhood sweetheart and husband of 28 years, Rich, was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11, and she thinks terrorists aren't the only ones to blame.
MONICA GABRIELLE: Who wouldn't be angry? I watched my husband murdered live on TV. No recovery, the man was crushed in a building that was inadequately built; hit by planes that were allowed to go awry. I'm very angry. At any point in time, the casualties could have been lessened, and it seems to me there wasn't even an attempt made. And I am extremely angry, and extremely determined to find out what happened.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That determination has resulted in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the New York Port Authority, the airlines, and security companies accusing them of negligence. She could have gone down an easier road by filing a claim with the victim's compensation fund, created by Congress just 16 days after the attacks.
It is an unlimited pool of federal money that so far has paid out $633 million to the families of the dead. Relatives who want to file a claim have until Dec. 22 to do so. And although the average award has been almost $2 million, only 52 percent of the 3,016 families who qualify have opted in. Kenneth Feinberg, known as the special master of the fund, says that's because many families are still grieving.
KENNETH FEINBERG, Special Master, 9/11 Compensation Fund: They come in individuals, in small groups, in large groups. They say, "Mr. Feinberg, I cannot put pen to paper. I cannot fill out the application. I begin to do it and my hand begins to shake, and I just can't do it." And I say to those people, you know, "You may get an award of $2 million or $3 million tax-free. You are compounding the tragedy if you miss this deadline. Do not allow the terrorists to win."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some relatives like Gabrielle think the fund is too confining. When a relative goes into it, they give up their right to sue and they are legally bound by whatever decision is made by Feinberg.
KENNETH FEINBERG: I see videotapes, I see books, I see photograph albums, people come in, claimants, families in grief. It is harrowing, it is harrowing. You sit with a family and they walk you through a mosaic that was that person's life, and you try and put a real individual behind numbers.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far, the smallest award has been $250,000; the largest, over $6 million. And if a victim had life insurance, that amount is deducted, something that has been criticized by relatives.
Using a variety of data, Feinberg created a grid that takes into account many economic factors, including life expectancy and total anticipated earnings. He says while the grid gives families parameters of an award, he has total discretion over the amount.
KENNETH FEINBERG: The statute lays out the methodology and the considerations that I have to consider in computing awards. On the other hand, I also do have discretion in order to try and do right in individual cases.
MONICA GABRIELLE (on phone): All right, bye.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Monica Gabrielle wants more than compensation.
MONICA GABRIELLE: There needs to be accountability. There needs to be someone to stand up and say, "No, this is wrong. I'm not going to sign on the dotted line, sign away my rights, take whatever little funds Mr. Feinberg has, and go quietly into the night and pretend this never happened." My life and the life of 3,000 families has been destroyed, and someone needs to be held accountable.
SPOKESMAN: Okay, but that's the go ahead on the 17th. Bye.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney Marc Moller represents Gabrille and more than 400 9/11 families. He has counseled most of his clients to go into the fund, because many of them do not have the resources to sustain a lengthy court battle. But for the 50 or so who want to sue, he thinks they have a good chance of winning, even though the fund's statute places limits on the amount people can recover from the airlines.
MARC MOLLER, Attorney: Nobody has clean hands here. I don't think it's fair for anybody in the array of defense to say, "It wasn't my fault." It may not have been the fault of one defendant entirely, but there is enough liability here to go around. It'll take work and take risk, but I don't think that they are barking up the wrong tree.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What's this picture?
ERMA BODIER: This is Francesca.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But not everyone has the stomach for litigation. Erma Bourdier gave up her right to sue long ago when she became the first to seek recovery from the fund. Bourdier's husband, Frank, was a security guard who died on 9/11, leaving her with 2-year-old daughter Francesca to raise. For her, litigation, with its unpredictable outcome, was not an option.
ERMA BOURDIER: I have a 20-month-old daughter. What now? What am I going to do? I had to quit my job. I don't have any other family support here in the United States. What are we going to do? The bills doesn't stop coming. We don't have any medical insurance. Where I'm going to start? I don't have any alternatives. This is the easiest route for me.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The fund?
ERMA BOURDIER: The fund.
SPOKESMAN: So all in all, it worked out well, except for this blockage.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bourdier was represented by attorney Stephan Peskin. He is part of a group called Trial Lawyers Care, 900 attorneys providing free legal services to victims and relatives. He says he didn't want his client to rely solely on the monetary guidelines laid out in the grid.
STEPHAN PESKIN, Attorney: What struck me as a people person and a trial lawyer, someone that represents injured folks, is that the government set up a grid. Well, my client isn't a widget. My client doesn't fit into a box. My client is a human being, and I ... my role was to portray to Mr. Feinberg what my client really ... who my client was, and the kind of person he was, the intricacies of his life. My client was a hero.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Feinberg awarded Bourdier over a million dollars, half of that was to be set aside for her daughter. But there was a problem, even though the statute says the money is supposed to be tax free, the IRS wanted taxes paid on any future interest earned on the daughter's award. So Bourdier and a number of others were delayed in settling their claims.
Then last month, after considering the matter for over a year, the IRS said so long as the child's money was put into long-range investments and paid out periodically, no taxes would have to be collected. Now Bourdier will move forward and collect her money. Victims families aren't the only ones eligible to receive compensation from the fund, there's another huge group of people who can make claims, people like Rick Collins, who was seriously injured.
Nobody knows how many injured there are. Estimates range in the thousands. But so far, just over 1,000 people have come forward. Collins was an engineer in tower one when an area he was working in became engulfed in flames.
RICK COLLINS: Paper in the room spontaneously ignited and paint peeled off the walls. I was cooking. I was just literally cooking alive.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: He was rescued by fleeing tenants who dragged him outside. Moments later, the building collapsed, burying him under debris. Today, Collins suffers from restrictive airway disease caused by the asbestos and other contaminants he inhaled. Shards of glass took out most of the vision from his right eye, and he is partially deaf. He receives Social Security disability payments. But he says all that pales beside the post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, that he suffers from.
RICK COLLINS: The trouble I have is when I go to bed. I see it almost as if I were ... were reliving the whole thing over again. It's almost like the moment I shut my eyes and begin to fall asleep the camera starts rolling.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Under the rules of the fund, Collins cannot seek damages for mental disorders like PTSD; only his physical injuries qualify. He's reluctant to sign up for the fund, because if he accepts a specified amount of money now, it might not be enough to cover future medical problems.
RICK COLLINS: I'm going to have to make a decision here and now, and my medical file is still open. We still don't know what's going to happen. Two years from now, a doctor may come to me and say the asbestos did take its toll. I'm not looking to hit lotto, I'm not looking for millions and millions of dollars. I just want to know that my family's going to be okay.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The special master's office has launched a vast outreach program hoping to bring more people into the fund before Dec. 22. Full-page ads have been placed in English and Spanish language newspapers. In the last month, there's been a spike in the number of claims, a sign government officials hope is an indication that more and more of those entitled to awards will apply.