The Struggle for Justice for 9/11 Workers

The people who toiled at Ground Zero and suffered medical disabilities need more

By Gabe Pressman
|  Monday, Mar 22, 2010  |  Updated 5:30 PM EDT
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The Struggle for Justice for 9/11 Workers

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Lucio Solis, a day laborer who has been helping with the clean-up of buildings near Ground Zero, takes a breathing test.

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The settlement offered to the men and women who toiled at Ground Zero is unjust.

Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein deserves high praise for rejecting it----and demanding that lawyers and government officials come up with a more generous amount for the men and woman who toiled at Ground Zero and suffered medical disabilities.

The judge heard from first responders and rescue workers. Some were tearful as they told him what had happened to them and how it affected their families.

"In my judgment," Hellerstein declared, "this settlement is not enough. From the beginning I felt that the people who responded on 9/11 were our heroes. They cushioned the blow….They brought us back from the blow."

Then the judge went on to condemn the lawyers who negotiated the $575-million settlement. The injured heroes would probably, he said, receive too little while the lawyers, who would get $200 million, would get too much.

He criticized the lawyers for pushing the plaintiffs to agree to the deal when many of these victims had no idea how much they would get. The lawyers, he said, did not deserve the one-third that many plaintiffs signed away. Hellerstein said he would come up with a lower percentage, based on fairness and justice.

One man, former Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, has been described as an "unsung hero" of 9/ll. After the first tower collapsed, enveloping him and thousands of others in a toxic cloud of dust, Washington rushed to City Hall and, before Mayor Giuliani’s whereabouts were known, the deputy Mayor was ordering out heavy equipment and floodlights and directing assistance for families. He spent weeks at the place where the towers fell, helping to direct operations.

Washington suffered asthma, an irritated throat and other respiratory and digestive problems. He has been in and out of hospitals for years. He spent some time in intensive care.

He, along with other victims, wrote to the judge. Others spoke out in court. Washington, a shy man, preferred to listen and let his words speak from the letter he had written. He told the judge the proposed settlement "wasn’t right." Washington told me that lawyers on both sides would probably take almost half of the money provided in the settlement. "That," he said, "is not just." He wants fellow victims to write to him on Facebook, so he can see what, if anything, is required to help them in the future struggle.

Judge Hellerstein’s action in setting aside the agreed settlement was overshadowed by the health care debate and its outcome.

But to 10,000 New Yorkers and their loved ones the end of the battle for their rights -- and their health -- is very important.

Sadly, the plight of these heroes, as the judge called them, has been largely overlooked. Only the Daily News reacted strongly to the judge’s decision.

The newspaper, which won the Pulitzer Prize for its editorials on this issue, said: "Finally, after almost nine long, painful shameful years, someone has stood up for the rights and the well being of the Forgotten Victims of 9/11. "

Hellerstein’s decision, said the editorial, was "a stunning rebuke to the attorneys who asked their clients to accept far less than they deserve while gouging them for outrageous legal fees."

The judge’s ruling may throw some lawyers and clients into despair. But Hellerstein is an honest man who’s trying to do the right thing.

His decision should inspire New Yorkers who admire a judge who strives for fair play. We hope it will help the afflicted in their future struggle for health and justice.

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