West Babylon Fire Department firefighter Hassan Hamza bows his head after 9/11 commemorations outside the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2010 in New York City. Hamza was a first responder on 9/11 and lost three friends, two firefighters and one police officer, on that day. Today marks the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
A federal judge has given thousands of 9/11 rescue and recovery workers more time to join a legal settlement that would pay millions of dollars to people sickened by dust from the World Trade Center, if enough of them agree to the deal.
Men and women who participated in the ground zero cleanup initially had until the end of the day Monday to decide whether to join a deal that would pay at least $625 million to people who developed illnesses after working in the rubble.
But after a "huge influx" of people filed paperwork related to the settlement in the days before the deadline, lawyers representing the city agreed to extend the deadline for another week. Workers will have until Nov. 16 to sign on, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein decided.
The deal, struck in the spring, remains tentative. Under its terms, the settlement only takes effect if at least 95 percent of the workers agree to sign on.
A lawyer for about 9,000 of the workers, Paul Napoli, told The Associated Press on Friday that the plaintiffs were very close to hitting that target, but the final results may not be known for days. Related settlements could raise the total compensation for the workers to as much as $815 million.
Hellerstein, who has been overseeing the litigation, issued a gag order late Monday barring the attorneys involved in the case from talking to the media about how the tally had gone.
He wrote that he was doing so "to avoid confusion and speculation flowing from the dissemination of incomplete information."
In his order, he said a "huge influx of claims" in the final days before the deadline had taxed the system he and the lawyers had set up to handle the mountain of required paperwork.
Initially, all of the necessary documents were supposed to be uploaded to a court-authorized website by 11:59 p.m. Monday. That deadline has now been extended to Nov. 18.
Hellerstein asked the lawyers in the case to report the results to him first, and said he would release their findings on the court's Web site "promptly" once they do so.
More than 10,000 construction workers, police officers and firefighters have sued the city and a long list of companies over their handling of the cleanup of lower Manhattan after 9/11.
Medical studies have suggested that exposure to the dust may have led to respiratory problems for many of the workers. In the lawsuits, they have blamed city officials for sending people to the site without proper protective equipment.
It isn't clear what would happen if the 95 percent participation threshold wasn't met. The special insurance entity defending the city in the case could then declare the settlement dead, but nothing would prevent it from relaxing the requirement slightly if it wished.