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Sept. 11 Fund Payouts Criticized

A group of family members of Sept. 11 terror victims demonstrated in Boston Monday, criticizing the federal plan to compensate them.

At a news conference, relatives said the Victim's Compensation Fund is unfair because it provides too little for pain and suffering and deducts too much money from those who receive pensions, 410(k) money, or life insurance benefits.

Carie Lemack of Framingham, Mass., lost her mother in the attacks and now heads a group called Families of September Eleven. She said victims would receive much more in compensation if they were allowed to go through the courts.

"I lost my mom on a plane. She flew into a building on national television," said Lemack, 26, whose mother, Judy LaRocque, was on American Flight 11. "And then our rights were taken away from us."

Peggy Ogonowski, whose husband piloted American Airlines Flight 11 before the plane was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, struck a similar chord. She said the plan is unfair because it deducts death benefits, such as pension plans and life insurance, from the compensation.

"So think of yourself as losing a loved one to a Firestone Tire, or to a poorly cooked hamburger from a Jack in the Box and then having someone say, 'Oh by the way we have taken away your right to recover damages...' That is what the special master has done with this fund," said Dr. Stephen Holland, who lost his wife in the attacks.

Survivors and relatives of attack victims had also joined Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday in New York to call for changes to the plan. The fund was created as part of a $15 billion airline relief package established by Congress. It allows families to apply for federal money to cover lost wages, pain and suffering as long as they agree not to file lawsuits against airlines and other entities.

Families of those who perished in the terrorist assault receive an immediate payment of $50,000, and injured victims get $25,000 when their applications are processed. The minimum award for the families of those killed is $250,000, before deductions. The average award is expected to be $1.65 million. The final award will be based on the victim's age, number of dependents and earning power.

Clinton suggested other changes she wants made to eligibility guidelines, including the elimination of the rule requiring injured victims seeking compensation to have received medical treatment by noon on Sept. 12.

The freshman senator said the 24-hour rule should be stricken from the guidelines because many victims could not get to a hospital until after that period, and some didn't realize the severity of their injuries.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Georgetown University Law Center professor appointed to administer the fund, said the concern is valid.

"We'll take a look at that, that's a possibility to change the rule," Feinberg said Sunday.

Feinberg noted that anyone who feels the guidelines aren't fair can appeal to him for special consideraton, as they can in all cases.

The Justice Department's deadline for submitting comments on the legislation is Jan. 21.
The fund began accepting claims on Dec. 21. If victims apply for benefits, they relinquish any right to sue the airlines or other entities over their losses.

Congress created the $6 billion compensation program 10 days after terrorists hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

On Jan. 18, the U.S. Department of Justice will open a Boston office to assist victims' families. Two of the hijacked planes took off from Boston's Logan Airport, and many of the passengers lived in the area.

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